Wednesday, 16 January 2019

In Conversation With Louise Sertsis, Creator Of The Handi Pac

Back in 2017 I started a series on my blog called 'In Conversation With' where I interviewed and talked to a wide variety of disabled people and those connected with disability, I've spent many years sharing my own experience of disability on my blog but that is just one experience and I wanted to widen my readers understanding of disability by talking to a range of different people. It's been quite a while since I last posted an interview but I'm hoping that the series will make a comeback this year, starting off with an interview that I've been meaning to post for far too long!

Photo: Louise Sertsis

I came across Louise Sertsis through her business, Advanced Freedom, last year when I was looking into bags that would work for me as a powerchair user, after having not much luck with anything from the mainstream market. I wanted to be able to travel from A to B with a bag without needing assistance from someone else and so I was delighted to hear about the bag that Louise had designed, The Handi Pac, a bag specifically designed for wheelchair users to give them freedom and independence when travelling. It's a bag that attaches to you, not your wheelchair, and sits on your legs rather than on the back of your chair allowing for easy access. Sometimes you come across things that you just want to shout about and this was one of those things!

I talked to Louise about the bag, it's importance and the future for herself and other disabled people looking to start up their own business. The Handi Pac is like nothing else on the market currently, Louise told me about what sets it apart from other bags.

'The Handi Pac is made specifically for wheelchair users, designed by someone who uses a wheelchair! It is the only front facing bag and the only bag that is secured to you rather than your wheelchair. It is a large bag to allow the user to use the bag for food shopping, school or travelling and it is the only bag that is flexible enough to detach into two. It uses magnetic closures rather than velcro or cumbersome clasps/connectors, and includes D-rings for easier grip for those who require it.'

  • Similar to a backpack for the able-bodied individual, but made especially for the seated person.  
  • The only bag that fastens directly onto the person, alleviating the need to retrieve items at the side or the back of the individual. Disabled people often do not have the capacity or the strength to turn around, let alone the ability to raise their arms while performing a specific task. 
  • Runs the length of your lower leg, with magnetic closures that fastens the bag around your calf area.  
  • All zippers/buckles on traditional bags are replaced by magnets.  
  • It's the largest wheelchair bag on the market; accommodates an array of items when shopping, going to school, or travelling the globe.  
  • Top portion of the bag is attached by magnets to the lower portion of the bag. This part of the bag allows for easy access to smaller items such as a phone, sunglasses, purse, wallet, sunscreen, magazines, calculator, notebooks, tablets, and more. 
  • Lap portion of the bag has a quick release seatbelt that fastens to the mid-thigh area and allows for easy removal, and is adjustable to the user. 
  • Water resistant to withstand changing weather conditions. - Advanced Freedom 

  • Photo: Louise Sertsis

    We also talked about where this all began and what made her want to start Advanced Freedom and go on to design and create The Handi Pac. 'I always found myself searching for items that were truly accessible for wheelchair users, the items available to date aren't completely functional for wheelchair users. I craved the independence I lost when I first started using a wheelchair and that's when Advanced Freedom was born. The Handi Pac is the first of many ideas I have to make life easier for wheelchair users but I started with The Handi Pac as I needed a bag that I could use completely on my own. I wanted a bag that I could travel, shop or run errands with without needing anyone else to hold on to my belongings.'

    I think this is a struggle a lot of wheelchair users share, I want to be independent but there are only so many bags I can hang off my powerchair meaning I either limit the amount of food shopping I do, for example, or I take someone with me to help. Many of us result to adapting how we do things, or adapting products already on the market so I asked Louise how she would like to see various industries change to adapt and cater better for disabled people.

    'I really feel that the disabled community have been forgotten when designing products, it's almost as if we are an afterthought or completely shunned from the mainstream markets. Many large chains just don't believe there is enough money or disabled people to warrant providing accessible lines. The internet is really the only option at the moment and even that is very sparse, I feel this won't change until a large corporation paves the way for others to follow.'

    I would love to see more disabled people following the path that Louise has gone down, taking matters into their own hands and designing products that work for themselves and other disabled people but it's no easy process, I spoke to Louise about challenges and barriers she's faced.

    'This journey is very exciting but at times overwhelming. It is very gratifying to see your idea come to life whilst helping others, I'm a sole proprietor and I'm learning as I go. I was very lucky to find a mentor, someone who truly believes in my product and especially in me. I'm beyond grateful for all his help, or else I probably wouldn't have gotten to this point. My recommendation would be to form relationships with like minded people who share the same vision as you. By building a team of people, things move a lot quicker and cause less stress.

    I think that if there were more disabled people creating products for the disabled market then I believe there would be a greater spotlight on disability as a whole. As they say 'necessity is the mother of invention' and unless you're in need of something it's difficult to create something completely new. That's half the creative process, if it's something you need then chances are many other disabled people would benefit as well.

    For me I'm still struggling with financial barriers, especially since I don't work and haven't in quite some time. I've found that I was unable to get a job because I am a wheelchair user so I made the decision to hire myself. I think hard work and never taking no for an answer has given me the chance to connect with the right people, to turn my dream into reality.  I really can't say how to make this process easier, but access to a computer has been my saviour as I'm able to do most things on there.  It's a lot easier to work from home, to be able show my product through Skype or messenger has been wonderful.'

    I was lucky enough to try The Handi Pac out recently and was really impressed by how high quality it was, as well as it being far easier to use than I imagined! The magnetic closures are simple and don't require too much strength to undo and the bag sits comfortably. Unfortunately for me it doesn't fit into my lifestyle, I would have trouble getting on the bus with it but I did speak to model, Samanta Bullock, who has found the bag to be very useful in her life.

    'I use the bag whilst travelling and it is a great concept, what I liked most is that it's very practical as everything you need is in front of you. It also comes with the lap bag that is a handbag attached to your lap giving easy access to the things we use often. With all the new improvements I am really looking forward to seeing it on the market. I believe it will help many disabled people.'

    The Handi Pac Kickstarter will go live towards the end of January/beginning of February, follow Louise and myself to keep up to date with when it's available

    Monday, 7 January 2019

    A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic | Review

    Christmas might be over but the festive spirit is more than alive still and can be found in The Old Vic until January 19th!

    Start as you mean to go on they say, and so I kicked off my 2019 in the best way possible, with a theatre trip! I was very kindly invited along to The Old Vic to see A Christmas Carol and to hear about all of the access improvements they are making in the theatre this year. It was my first visit to The Old Vic and my first play and let me tell you, neither of them disappointed.

     Photo by Manuel Harlan
     Photo by Manuel Harlan
    Photo by Manuel Harlan

    A Christmas Carol is a classic that has been done time and time again and in so many different ways but for me this production adapted by Jack Thorne, who has credits like Harry Potter & the Cursed Child to his name, truly is up there with the best versions of this timeless story. Having never seen a play before I wondered whether losing concentration would be a problem but I couldn't have been more wrong as I gripped from start to finish.

    This isn't just a show, it's an immersive theatre experience like nothing I've experienced before. It's a treat for all of the senses as you're offered a mince pie and orange as you take your seats, the room quickly being filled up by the smell of both. The music used is enchanting and I found myself looking around the whole stage with a smile on my face as I soaked in the atmosphere. It truly felt like the audience were part of this production.

    The staging and set was simple but memorising, the words the actors spoke were enough on their own to capture the audience but the set just gave it that little extra magic and wonder. Stephen Tompkinson quite frankly gave a masterclass in acting, the emotions he conveyed and the way he played Scrooge to me just made so much sense and gave a completely different angle to the story. He is on stage for so much of the show and yet not once did I find myself not being completed engaged in what he was doing or saying.

     Photo by Manuel Harlan
    Photo by Manuel Harlan

    Prior to doing some research before the show I was more than expecting Tiny Tim to be played by non-disabled actors, as so often happens within these industries, so when I found out that all 4 children who play Tiny Tim are in fact disabled themselves, I was over the moon. As a disabled theatre fan there are not enough words to describe how much it means to see a disabled person being booked for roles like this, roles that should always go to someone with a lived experience. I hope other theatres and creative teams see this and follow suit because it's about time. I had Luka Petrovic on as Tiny Tim and I was just completely blown away, as I always am by child actors, by his talent and professionalism.

    I don't want to ruin anything for those who are going, and to those who aren't you should book tickets right now, but there are some truly heart warming and beautiful moments and some wonderful surprises that just made me so happy I was on the edge of tears. It was simply one of the most breathtaking pieces of theatre I've had the pleasure to witness.

    The Old Vic are putting on 3 access performances of A Christmas Carol, an audio described performance with a touch tour on January 8th, a captioned performance on January 10th and an open/relaxed performance at the matinee performance on January 12th.

     Photo by Manuel Harlan
    Photo by Manuel Harlan

    The Old Vic is just over 200 years old and also an Grade 2 listed building so I think I just always assumed that as a wheelchair user I couldn't even get in, when actually their access is better than some newer theatres I've tried to visit! I was invited along to see the show and also to learn more about the current access and the plans to improve it this year and in the future. I have to say it was one of the most refreshing conversations I've ever had about access in theatres.

    Wheelchair access at The Old Vic is via a side entrance, which is a fairly common experience for me and many theatres are more than happy to offer that kind of experience to disabled people. Not being able to access a theatre foyer, box office or bar has become the norm for many wheelchair users but The Old Vic are leading the way by saying that isn't good enough. So, starting this month after raising the funds needed work begins to make the foyer and the basement cafe accessible for disabled patrons. They are going to be taking out a whole wall to make this happen, as well as installing a lift to allow access to the basement. They'll also be doubling the number of ladies toilets, which I'm sure is a very welcome improvement! They hope to take the number of wheelchair spaces they have from 2 to 10 eventually too, which would be incredible to see since they are a 1,000 seat theatre, a lot bigger than it appears.

    View from wheelchair space (P7)

    The long term plans for the future could see The Old Vic become one of the most accessible theatres in London for patrons, staff and actors, it was exciting to hear about but it's all very much long term ambitious plans that rely on a lot of outside funding since they depend so heavily on public support. Which I think is why they see the importance of access, they want to give an equal experience to every person who supports them to stay open.

    As said before, the access for wheelchair users and other disabled patrons is currently via a side entrance and a very steep ramp, because of the pavement the ramp can't be very long which means as a result it's steep so it's something to keep in mind if you're visiting. The disabled toilet is right by the entrance, it's not very big although I still managed to turn around in it in my rather large mid wheel drive powerchair. The door slides across rather than outwards or inwards, which really helps. There are currently 2 wheelchair spaces in the stalls, I sat in P7 which was less than 10 metres from the stage. Photos on Seat Plan had made it look a lot further away than it is, in fact I think it's the closest I've ever sat to a stage.

    The wheelchair space was on a platform that levelled out the floor, not something I need since I have a tilt function on my powerchair but being a little higher than others was something I enjoyed and I think manual wheelchair users especially would appreciate the extra height. Staff were able to get me a programme and drink and came and checked on me during the interval which I appreciated, as well as communicating with me about the plan to get me out as where the wheelchair space was meant I got caught up in a big crowd so that communication was greatly appreciated. It really was up there with some of my best theatre experiences, in terms of access and the production. You can learn more about their current access and the future plans on the website.

    I really am so excited to follow the progress of the renovation work this year, it should be all finished by Autumn of this year which is impressive considering they've a whole lift to put it! I can't begin to tell you how encouraging it was to have a conversation with a theatre so dedicated to access, they are even beginning to consider things like having a Changing Places eventually but again due to space, these are very long term plans. They are more committed to access than most London theatres and I can only hope others witness the benefits of improved access and follow suit, The Old Vic are proving that a listed status building shouldn't be a barrier to equal access.

    A Christmas Carol is still playing at The Old Vic until January 19th so if you're looking to cling on to the festive season for a little longer then get yourself over there to see it, it is well worth the trip! It's a real shame that such a high quality piece of theatre is only on stage over Christmas but I cannot wait to see more productions at the theatre this year!

    Monday, 31 December 2018

    2018 | My Best Year Yet

    2018, what a year! 2018 had the potential to either be the worst year of my life or the best year, there was never going to be any middle ground and I think it's clear to see that it's thankfully been my best year yet. Something happened in my life this year that is probably one of the toughest things I will ever experience, but the gift of getting my new powerchair in February meant I could fill my time with distractions to make it the best year of my life so far. Now, I knew that I'd done a lot this year but I didn't realise the extent until I wrote this post, and most of what I've done and achieved wouldn't have been possible without my powerchair. I joked about wanting to catch up on the years of life and experiences that I'd missed out on and I think I more than succeeded in doing just that!


    I really thought that I wouldn't have anything to write about for January since my powerchair wasn't delivered until February, but it turns out I was pretty busy in the media talking about pre-packaged food! I found myself on Channel 4 news and writing for Metro about how necessary pre-packaged food is for some disabled people, this was my first step towards tackling the ableism found within the conversations that are being had about packaging and plastic in particular. I also started swimming again for the first time in years and documented my journey with it throughout the year in blog posts for Activity Alliance, I'll definitely be continuing swimming in 2019! I also interviewed Paralympic skier Millie Knight as part of my In Conversation With series, something I will be bringing back very soon so keep an eye out for a new interview soon.


    On February 1st my powerchair was delivered, and one of the first big things that I did was take my Mum to see Les Mis in London. She'd wanted to go for all of my life and I always promised I'd take her one day, the look on her face as we entered the theatre is something I will never forget. She cried all the way through the show, it was such a special experience to share and the beginning of many theatre trips together! I also had a photoshoot with the lovely Kaye so I could show you my powerchair in all it's glory, as well as enjoying my new-found confidence!

    The conversations surrounding plastic were also still ongoing and I found myself going on the Channel 5 news live to talk about plastic straws, from the point of view of a disabled person who relies on them. I was absolutely terrified, more so than I was before some of my surgeries I think but I did it and I'm glad I did because it meant some filming I did later on in the year wasn't quite as terrifying as I imagined. I also took part in my first podcast for In Visibility Today with the wonderful Laura, it was a lot of fun and podcasts are something I would love to do more of in 2019!


    March marked the first time I'd been able to go outside in the snow as a powerchair user, it's something that wasn't at all possible in my old powerchair so it was exciting! An interview I did for Enable Magazine about pre-packaged food came out in March also, it doesn't matter how many times I see myself in print, it's always as exciting as the first time! We very sadly lost Stephen Hawking in March 2018 and images depicting him being free from his wheelchair inspired me to write about how my wheelchair has been my freedom, not a prison that I need freeing from. It ended up being one of my most popular posts on my blog this year!


    It seems April was a quiet month for me, the calm before the storm if you will! I did however take part in the Behind The Scars series, a photoshoot documenting people's scars and stories. Ever since my first surgery I'd wanted my scars photographed, I've always thought they were beautiful and hated that I was being offered advice on how to make them fade. They tell a story and are a constant reminder of my strength. I was really nervous about doing the photoshoot, it was totally out of my comfort zone and the idea of stripping down to nothing more than my underwear and a vest in front of strangers was terrifying. But, it took no more than 30 seconds for me to feel comfortable and before I knew it I was actually enjoying myself! I had convinced myself I'd hate the photos though, so when they came through and I loved them, I had a good cry. They are some of my favourite photos of me and I am forever grateful to Sophie for capturing a side of me I hadn't seen previously.


    By this point I'd only had my powerchair for 3 months and so right now I'm slightly concerned about how long this post is going to be because I already did so much in just a few months! May was another relatively quiet month (compared to later on in the year!) but I did attend the Changing Places Looathon. This was the brainchild of Sarah Brisdion, herself and others sat on toilets outside of a Bathstore in London to raise awareness of the need for more Changing Places, a type of accessible toilet with a hoist and height adjustable changing bench. It was a lot of fun to take part in and we've finally seen some progress as the government recently announced that they would act to increase the number of Changing Places in the UK. Hopefully 2019 is the year where we see real change on this issue!

    I also headed up to Leeds for a few days, a short trip I'd booked not long after I'd received my powerchair. Some of you might remember that I lived in Hull for a year and I really loved living so close to Leeds, I fell in love with the city so I knew I wanted to plan a trip for when I had my new powerchair and as a bonus, some of my friends live up there which meant I got to finally meet Kat and Chloe for the first time!


    Despite an ambulance trip and a hospital stay, I had a lot of fun in June! June marked the beginning of reigniting my love for theatre. I inherited a love of musicals from my Mum but before this year I hadn't been to the theatre in about 2 years but it only took one day in London at West End Live to remind me of how much I loved musicals and how happy seeing shows makes me. Just about every show Mum and I have seen this year was thanks to seeing them perform at West End Live. We had so much fun that day and we are already planning to make a weekend of it next year!

    I also visited the wonderful Quantum team for the first time, we spent a day in Oxford taking some photos and exploring the city and then I went to their HQ where I had a tour of the build line where the powerchairs are made. It was fascinating, I love seeing the behind the scenes of things so despite them insisting it wasn't that interesting, I loved it!


    I think July was when I really found my confidence, I started doing more spontaneous things and I think I settled into the mindset that so many new opportunities and experiences were open to me now. One thing on my list that I'd always wanted to do was attend London Pride, I went to my first Pride (Hull Pride) in 2017 after I came out as bisexual but I'd always wanted to go to London Pride, so when I moved back down south I knew I had to tick it off my list! It landed right in the middle of the heatwave we were having so I only lasted a few hours but those few hours were just incredible, I really felt like I belonged that day.

    Not long after that I saw Bat Out Of Hell for the first time, this show has truly changed my life and got me through the toughest thing I've ever been through. My only wish is that I'd seen it earlier as it sadly closes in less than a week's time! All the memories will last forever though. I loved the show so much I saw it again the week after and the rest is history! I did see another show that month though, Everybody's Talking About Jamie! This was the first time I'd sat in the stalls in a theatre as a wheelchair user, and also the first time that I had a totally unrestricted view. It was amazing! Mum and I laughed so much and it was just a really heartwarming show, I can't wait to return to see it again in just a few weeks time!

    I also took over the NHS Twitter at the end of August and start of September, I talked all about Marfan Syndrome and my experience of growing up with a genetic condition. It was a lot of fun and incredible to have taken part in it!


    By this point I'd had my powerchair for 6 months and I'd definitely found my feet as August was an an incredibly busy month! My love for Bat continued as I saw the show 3 times but I also attended my first theatre press night, the Eugenius acoustic media night at The Other Palace. This was my first invite after I'd started reviewing shows and talking about access at theatres not long before so it was so lovely to be invited and it was the start of my love for Eugenius, a show I really hope to see return in 2019! This is also where I met the wonderful Perry for the first time!

    It was also my 21st birthday in August and I headed up to Leeds again to spend a few days seeing friends, shopping and generally relaxing to celebrate! It was so lovely to see Chloe again and it was the few days away I needed to recharge because the day after I returned, I took part in the Superhero Series Triathlon! I teamed up with Lyndsay and Barry, 2 physios, to complete the triathlon, with me doing the push/run section in a lightweight manual wheelchair kindly lent to me by RGK. 1km seemed a lot longer than I imagined whilst I was doing it but I was so proud of myself that day and the smile on my face as I crossed that finish line said it all.

    I also visited the Quantum team again to do one of the most exciting but nerve wracking things I've ever done! Quantum brought out a new and improved version of my Edge 2.0 powerchair this year and I was in Leeds at the time when I got a phonecall from the team offering to upgrade my Edge 2.0 to the new Edge 3.0. It was the most incredible offer that I couldn't turn down! Not long after, I found myself in Oxford, spending a day filming a video for the launch of the Edge 3.0. It was a fascinating experience getting to see how much work goes into a video that is just a few minutes long, I was nervous but I had no reason to be as I really love the finished video!


    Let's call this the month of theatre, because that's basically all I did! I saw Eugenius, Six, Heathers and Bat in September and thoroughly enjoyed being in London so much, I've lived a 20 minute train ride away from central London just about all my life but it's only this year that I've really taken advantage of that.


    I started October off by being on the cover of Thiis Magazine, a trade magazine for the mobility industry, it might not be Vogue but I'm still super proud of this and don't think it'll ever sink in seeing my face on the cover of a magazine! I also saw Six twice more and had the pleasure of finally meeting the wonderful Pippa during one of those trips, 2018 was definitely the year of meeting Twitter friends in real life. I also went to the circus for the first time in my life during October, I was kindly invited along to a Circus Starr performance, they put on inclusive and accessible circus shows and provide free tickets for disabled, disadvantaged and vulnerable children. It was a really fun experience!

    One of my biggest achievements of 2018 was announced in October, I could finally share that I had made it on to the Shaw Trust Disability Power 100 list, a list of 100 of the most influential disabled people in the UK. I got to share the evening with so many friends who had also made the list, but it's still not sunk in that I'm on it!

    I finished off the month on Halloween, one of the best nights of my life. Mum and I started the day off by finally going to the Sky Garden in London, something we'd both wanted to do for a while despite neither of us being a fan of heights. We did it though and we even went right to the edge! The views were stunning and it was beautiful inside as well, if you're looking for things to do in 2019 then you have to add this to your list!

    For us it was just the starter to our main plans for the day though, the Bat Out Of Hell Halloween Singalong! My costume only came together in the days before the show but it did come together in the end and I loved it. Everyone looked incredible that night and the atmosphere was like nothing I've ever experienced before, the theatre wasn't even full but we were making enough noise for 2 theatres worth of people! Having the cast member who plays the character I dressed up as and head of wardrobe compliment my costume meant the world and that night will also hold a special place in my heart.


    November saw me finally post my plastic straw ban piece on here and the reaction it got was better than I ever could have expected! It's been the most popular post on my blog this year so I'm so glad I took my time with it to make it the best I could, something tells me the plastic straw fight will continue in 2019.

    Theatre wise, I saw Bat 4 times, once with Perry, revisited Heathers and still didn't like it and went to the West End Live Lounge at The Other Palace to see some incredible West End stars perform! I also went to a concert in November as well, booking to see Christine and The Queens in Birmingham was one of the first big things I did once I got my powerchair and it came round so quickly. I had the best time, despite ending up ill, I've still no idea how I managed the 4 hour journey home!

    I also went on a trip to Manchester to attend Kidz to Adultz North with Quantum where I spent the day on the stand getting to talk about how much I love my powerchair, as well as meeting friends and exploring the exhibition! I even found a car that would be ideal for me one day. This was also where I saw the giant posters of myself for the first time, a little weird but also exciting! A piece that I'd been involved with for the Evening Standard also came out in November, it was all about how technology has changed people's lives and it was amazing to have been asked to be part of it, the photoshoot was a lot of fun and I think we all look so badass in the photo!


    I finished my year in exactly the way I intend to start 2019, in a theatre! December was when the 'Bat is closing' panic set in and I saw the show 10 times after I found a taxi company that has cars I can fit in to get home after evening performances, which also meant I went out on a Friday night for the first time in my life! On that Friday I also attended a performance at The Theatre Cafe by Bat cast members Rob Fowler and Sharon Sexton, it was the first time I'd visited The Theatre Cafe after they invested in a ramp recently, here's to many more trips there in 2019!

    I also went back to Manchester to do a double show day of Doctor Dolittle (review coming soon!), which was the sweetest family show, and to see the wonderful Six ladies again who blew me away even more! Stage dooring after that Six performance has to be one of my favourite stage door memories ever and I cannot wait for Six to return to London in just a few weeks time! I also finally saw Kinky Boots ahead of it closing in January, I'm so glad Mum and I managed to squeeze in a trip because it was incredible! We laughed so much and it was such a feel good show, I've a review coming soon because whilst it might be leaving the West End, it's still touring the country!

    So, that's my 2018! I saw 8 shows a total of 37 times, visited several new cities, started swimming, embraced being spontaneous, found myself popping up in the media more times than I can count, took part in several different photoshoots and gained so much confidence! 2018 was the year I found myself, my powerchair gave me the confidence I needed to figure out exactly who I am. I went into 2018 being newly single, living back at home with my family and truly believing that it would be the worst year of my life. I couldn't have been more wrong.

    Here's to many more adventures in 2019!
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