Wednesday, 25 April 2018

In Conversation With Paralympic Skier Chris Lloyd

In September 2011 life completely changed for Chris Lloyd when a rally car accident left him paralysed from the neck down. He went from having an active lifestyle to needing help with the simplest of things. But, it was also the beginning of a journey that most certainly would never have begun had he not endured the life changing event. Just seven years on from the accident Chris competed in the recent Winter Paralympic Games in South Korea and I got the chance recently to chat to him about his injury, the sport he loves and his experience at the games.

Man is skiing down a hill, wearing a blue ski suit with red skis and green ski poles.

Chris' journey started with a rally car accident, a broken back and spinal cord damage at C3 and C4 that left him paralysed from the neck down, at first. Chris talked to me about his original prognosis: "When I saw the consultant he basically said to me that my life wouldn't be normal again, I wouldn't be able to ski, I wouldn't be able to drive rally cars, so my life would be very different."

Chris was determined from the beginning to prove everyone wrong though and he quickly exceeded everyone's expectations. Months after the crash he slowly started to regain movement and he began to walk, it the first step in what was to be a long process but he kept proving everyone wrong. His consultant was said to be astounded by his remarkable recovery.

Man wearing blue jacket with union jack flag accents holds skis over one shoulder.

Prior to his accident Chris was skiing recreationally and on holidays with his family but he'd never competitively raced, he talked to me about how he got into racing: "When I was in rehabilitation in Cardiff there was a poster for the Paralympic Games in London 2012 and from there I set myself a goal to get as good as I could and try and compete in a Paralympic Games, and that's what led me to ski again and eventually get to the Paralympics in South Korea in March just gone."

I couldn't quite believe it when I read that Chris was back skiing just 12 months after his accident, but whilst talking to him it was clear that he is and always has been a determined and motivated individual.

"I've always been quite motivated and just tried my best at whatever I've done. When I had my injury obviously I wanted to try my best as I had a family and two young children so I felt like I'd massively let them down, my boy was crying because I couldn't play football. It just gave me a massive determination to get back as good as I could to do stuff with them. Pushing myself has been the best thing I could have done, my quality of life is better now because I pushed myself as far as I could. In day to day living it's given me a benefit because I'm fitter and stronger than I maybe thought I ever would have got."

Close up of a man looking sideways at something outside

Of course though, it's not all plain sailing when you receive the kind of life changing injuries that Chris did in the accident.

"I think the hardest part is having your independence taken away, I couldn't use my hands so I had to be fed. It's a massive change to life, before you could go out and do anything you want and all of a sudden I was stuck in a hospital bed and had to get washed and I couldn't go to the toilet, your life is just upside down and that's something you never expect and you've never experienced. Unless you have that injury than you can never know, it's hard to explain to someone, you can talk about it but unless you've done through it then people can't experience how difficult it is."

This is a feeling that I think many disabled people can relate to, all of our situations are so different and unique to ourselves so it can often be an isolating experience when it feels like no one else understands or can relate. For Chris getting back into skiing was something that helped this: "It was something I was told wouldn't be possible so then actually getting back out to do it was like someone giving you a second chance, giving you a lifeline."

Man is skiing down a hill, wearing a blue ski suit with red skis and green ski poles.

Chris worked hard from then on, both physically and mentally, teaching himself meditation and positive visualisation to give his body the best chance of pushing him to that goal of competing in the Paralympic Games. Chris only has 40% power in his right leg and 50% power in his left so it takes him 3 or 4 times more energy to get round a course, recovery can take days.

Chris' Paralympic journey started with a session with a disability snowsport charity, leading on to him being invited to join a development squad with the British Disabled Ski Team. He then attended Sochi 2014 with the Paralympic Inspiration Programme which further motivated him to secure a spot at the most recent games, PyeongChang 2018. Last month after years of hard work he finally achieved his goal and finished 20th in the men's standing downhill and 25th in the Super-G, an outstanding achievement. I asked him about his experience at the games:

"It was amazing to be part of that, to get there and come to the end of the journey, it was the goal I'd set myself quite early on in hospital, so to get there was amazing and a proud moment for me and my family. The atmosphere and everything there, all the support and the team was just brilliant. I think it was better than I expected, I had an idea of what to expect because I'd gone to Sochi in 2014 but actually competing was so different."

Man is looking at the camera wearing a blue ski suit, holding a blue helmet and red skis.

Whilst skiing has ended up being Chris' true passion, he did try out a few other parasports during his rehabilitation, but found out that they weren't easy to access: "I went to cycling and they said I was too old and then I went to rowing and was told I was too short so I did try parasports as just part of my rehab and I didn't realise how difficult it was to access some of these things."

He went on further, telling me about how people can often be a barrier as well: "Sometimes the people you speak to are not as encouraging as you would want them to be as well, it can be a little bit of a knockback."

To finish things off Chris had some more advice for any disabled people, of any age, who are interested in taking up a sport, whether it be just for fun or competitions.

"The advice I'd give is that if it's something that you love and enjoy then just keep on trying to access it and don't give up, try different avenues as I know it wasn't easy for me to get into sport when I was getting knocked back and it can be a little daunting when you think it's quite easy but it wasn't as easy as I thought it was. Just keep on trying though."

Blue skies in the background as a man looks past the camera, wearing a blue jacket

If you're interested in trying out a sport then you can find out more about all of the Paralympic sports on the ParalympicsGB website.

You can also stay up to date with Chris and his journey via his Twitter and website. 

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Bag Solutions for Wheelchair Users | My Mia Tui Bag

In the months prior to receiving my new powerchair there were so many things to think about, one of them being what kind of bags I'd be able to use that would be practical and give me the most independence possible. For the past 2 years I've been using cross body bags for my purse, phone etc. and then hanging shopping bags off my armrests, as my old powerchair didn't have anything on the back to hang bags off, something that kept me from being as independent as I wanted. So, when I found out about the backpack clips that could be added to my new powerchair, I was over the moon. It would mean that I could carry more, including food shopping and my swimming bag. With this came the possibility of getting a bag to keep on the back of my powerchair at all times, for everything that is handy to take out with me, things like heat patches and my powerchair control cover, all the bits and bobs that I'd often have to leave at home because I didn't have the space nor a bag to store them in previously.

Shona is sitting in her powerchair, the image has been taken from behind, there is a large grey handbag on the back of her powerchair. Background is a brick wall.
A large grey handbag is visible on the back of the powerchair.

I looked at various different backpacks in the months prior to receiving my new powerchair but I couldn't find anything that was both practical and visually appealing, so I was very happy when Mia Tui approached me to collaborate and the hunt was over! It was the mobility walker clips that they sell that first introduced me to the brand, an accessory that is ideal for wheelchairs, mobility walkers, buggies and more. So, when they offered to send me a bag and the clips to try out I couldn't say yes fast enough! I've had the bag for about 2 months now, it's been put through it's paces quite a lot so I thought it was time for a review.

Large grey handbag on white background
Large grey handbag open revealing a turquoise interior, some pockets are visible.

Mia Tui offer lots of different styles of bags, everything from backpacks to travel bags to changing bags, but for me it was the Mini Jen that stood out. It's a smaller version of the Jennie travel bag but in no way is it inferior! It comes in 12 different colours and I went for Dove Grey in the end as I wanted something simple and classic, but not black as my powerchair is already all black. My first impressions was that it was a well made bag, it felt high quality and I really like the feel and look of the ultra soft faux leather they use, the whole range is suitable for Vegan's which really impressed me as so often high quality bags are made out of leather.

Shona is sitting in her powerchair, her lap is visible, she is holding a small grey clutch bag. Her powerchair controller and both hands are visible, one on the controller and the other holding the bag.
Small clear bag with a small grey clutch bag laid on top.
Turquoise interior of a large grey handbag, several pockets are visible.
A blue key and keyring are attached to a keys clip which is hanging out of a large grey handbag.

It's not just the fabric choice that makes Mia Tui bags stand out from the rest though, the inside of the bags are more practical than most you'll find on the highstreet, they offer solutions to common problems like not being able to find your keys in your bag, or a leaking drink ruining the inside. Inside the Mini Jen you'll find a clip for your keys so they are always easy to find, an insulated bottle holder and phone and pen pockets. There are also 2 large side pockets, in which you can find a a clear bag with a hand strap, perfect for makeup and liquids, and in the other is a small matching clutch bag with a hand strap and a cross body strap, ideal for spontaneous nights out after work or keeping your passport and travel documents in. So, you're getting 3 bags in one!

Turquoise interior of a large grey handbag, a pink reusable coffee cup is visible in the cup holder.
Turquoise interior of a handbag, a phone is visible in the phone holder.
Turquoise interior of a handbag, a phone and two pens are visible in the phone and pen pockets.
Turquoise interior of a large grey handbag, pockets are visible which hold a small clear bag and a small grey clutch bag.

One of my favourite things about the bag is the bright turquoise interior which the founder of the company designed so that things would be easier to find, my purse and card holder are both black and finding them in a black bag is like finding a needle in a haystack sometimes so this is one detail that I really love! The bright interior is also waterproof, so you don't need to worry about any liquids spilling and ruining the bag. The bag is also large enough to fit a 15 inch laptop in, as well as the pockets being large enough for an iPad, Kindle or tablet, so there's no need to leave any of your gadgets at home!

I really could go on about all of the features and small details all day, as there are so many things that make Mia Tui bags different from the rest but, what do I actually think of my Mini Jen bag?

Small black clip attaches to large grey handbag.
Large grey handbag with a long grey strap.

I have to say that I've ended up loving and using this bag a lot more than I imagined when I first received it, it's become one of my powerchair essentials alongside my wheelchair blanket and allen keys! It's also become my swimming bag, travel bag for train journeys and my go to for long days out, it is so versatile and seems to fit into so many different parts of my life with ease.

It's the mobility walker clips that they offer as an accessory that really drew me to this brand though, they enable me to easily clip the bag onto my powerchair and for those who don't have backpack clips, they can also slide onto push handles or you could try using carabina clips as your own DIY backpack clips! The clips can attach to a lot of the bags available including the Jennie, Mini Jen and their Emma Baby Changing Bag. The fact that a company has thought of disabled people really gives me hope too, as so often our needs are forgotten and many of us end up having to do a little DIY project to make things like bags work for us! For my powerchair the clips are a little longer than I would perhaps like, but it's not so long that it touches my wheels so it's more a personal preference than a problem!

I also often rest the bag on my lap, using the longer strap to keep it in place around my waist, this is how I mostly wear it when I go swimming as I put my towels in a bag on the back of my powerchair. I really like that I have the option to wear it sitting on my lap, it frees up space on the back of my powerchair for when I go swimming, or just for busy shopping days!

Shona is sitting in her powerchair, a large grey handbag rests on her lap.

For most of my life I've rarely paid more than £20 for a bag and with trends changing so much my bags don't have a very long life but I finally know why people choose to invest in timeless high quality bags now. I'm certain that my Mia Tui bag will be with me for many years, and I definitely cannot say that for the rest of my bags!

Shop Mia Tui bags on their website and follow them on Twitter and Instagram to keep up to date and be notified about offers and their bundles!

*This product was kindly sent to me for review consideration, but this does not affect my opinion and I am always truthful when reviewing products

Saturday, 17 March 2018

My Wheelchair is My Freedom

Very recently the world lost a genius, Professor Stephen Hawking. He was an incredible man, he did groundbreaking work in science as well as important activism work, most recently seen in the work he did to try and save the NHS. He was also funny and inspired many people to follow their dreams of a career in science. He was also disabled, a huge part of his identity. His wheelchair and communication technology allowed him to achieve everything he did, sure he had to find different ways to do things but different is not bad, it is just different. So, why in the days after his death are illustrations circulating that show an empty wheelchair or Hawking walking away from an empty wheelchair, why are we painting the picture that wheelchairs are restrictive and Hawking is free now? These are toxic ideas that represent disabled people as being free once they die, the start of eugenics. Wheelchairs can be life changing, they give people independence and freedom, they don't restrict people. Inaccessible buildings and public transport restrict people but wheelchairs? Wheelchairs are freedom and I should know.

I started using a wheelchair several years ago now, at first it was a huge, heavy manual wheelchair that was pushed by family but it allowed me to do more and I was so grateful for my ESA backpayment that allowed me to buy it. I was struggling to even walk around the supermarket at that stage but once I had the wheelchair I could go back to shopping in town, spending time with my family and generally living life again. At that stage we didn't think the wheelchair use would last for long but when my mobility continued to decline I began to wonder about other options that could give me more independence. I was 18 when I fundraised for my first powerchair, after having been turned down for one on the NHS on the account of my ability to walk inside my home. 

The day I received my first powerchair was the day I got my life back. No more being pushed in a manual wheelchair by my family on the weekends, I couldn't go out at all from Monday to Friday as my family weren't around to assist me. My life was led by other people's schedules. But, from that day forward I was able to decide when I went out and where I went, my life on my terms. 

'Wheelchairs don't restrict people, inaccessible buildings, public transport and ableism does.'

My needs outgrew my first powerchair quickly and as many of you will know at the end of last year I had to fundraise again and I received my new powerchair just over a month ago. I've referred to it as life changing several times now but that doesn't even cover it. I'm now able to do things that I'd accepted I would never do, I'm considering paths in life that I thought were blocked off. That's what the right wheelchair does for a person. It enabled Hawking to continue his work and it's enabling me to begin my life again and start living like the 20 year old I want to be. So many things seem possible for the first time in years.

I don't need to be freed from my wheelchair and I am certainly not restricted by my wheelchair, society is what restricts me and Hawking's death has highlighted just how ingrained ableism is within people. 

My wheelchair is freedom. It's hope. It's independence. It's a fresh start.
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