QEF’s Marketing and Social Media Officer, Becky Dann, talks about her personal journey of disability and acceptance and the importance of positive role models.

In the UK, over 80% of disabled people acquire disability later in life. Fewer than 20% were born disabled. These stats alone show that anyone can become disabled. Yet why do we still have such a negative idea about disability and what it means to be disabled?

I was born with Kyphoscoliosis but I became disabled when, at age 11, I became paralysed and needed to use a wheelchair.

I spent a lot of my teenage years angry because suddenly I was thrown into a world where people treated me differently. Through school years and college years, I went to Physiotherapy, I tried all kinds of different medical treatments with an aim to walk again. To this day, I still need my wheelchair, but for small distances I can now stand and move which is more than I was able to do.

During my University years, I really did not use the term disabled, nor did I identify with it. I created projects around how ‘fine’ I was and even got ‘I’m fine’ tattooed on my body. When I ran for ‘Students with disabilities officer’ in my university elections, I was mortified when I realised you had to identify disabled to vote for me. With students coming to me saying they hated the word, I was frustrated. I created my whole campaign about ‘We are able, not disabled’ and really pushed that narrative.

It wasn’t until my first workplace after University that I actually met more disabled people, adult disabled people if you will. I worked for a disabled run organisation and was introduced to the social model of disability. This talks more about the barriers in society and the idea that disability is only caused by the lack of access into society and societies attitudes towards disability. It says that as a disabled person, you are not the problem. It says that if society was more informed from a younger age, if access was ingrained into practices and organisations, peoples attitudes would be different and the narrative around disability would be different. We would live in a more equal society.

I now work for QEF where teams in our Care and Rehabilitation Centre support people every day who are having to rebuild key skills after an acquired brain injury, stroke, incomplete spinal injury or other neurological impairments. And it really got me thinking about the importance of role models to help people look to the future with positivity.

Ann came to our Care and Rehabilitation Centre after a tumour on her spine left her partially paralysed. She spent 12 weeks working with Physiotherapists, Occupational Therapists and Psychologists; all of whom helped her process and adapt to a new way of living, supporting her with her journey of acceptance and preparing her for life after rehabilitation.

She spoke to us recently and gave an incredibly honest recount about her own journey of acceptance and the invaluable support provided by the team at QEF.

Ann said “At first I wasn’t wanting anyone to help me, I felt my life was over because I was never going to walk again. I was constantly crying… I’ve never been a negative person in my whole life, so this was a horrible experience - you get so low and you just can’t lift up on your own.”

She goes on to talk about meeting other disabled people and how that has helped her.

 “…I’ve made friends with other people through the groups as well… That’s a real change though, as at first I didn’t want to leave my room or meet people. I didn’t want to socialise with other disabled people, as I couldn’t accept that that was my life now and I didn’t want to face up to it. But they coaxed me out somehow.”

Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Holly Hurn says ‘Psychological adjustment to a life-changing injury can be extremely challenging. As with any loss, people may find themselves experiencing a range of grief-related feelings including shock, denial, anger, despair and depression. Access to regular psychological support during the early stages of this adjustment process can be crucial in enabling an individual to work through some of these emotions, gradually reconnect to their values and grow towards a fulfilling and happy future. At QEF the Clinical Psychology service offers support to all our clients and families during their unique rehabilitation journeys.”  

For me, the more involved I became with the disabled community, the more I realised how incredibly common it is for people who acquire disabilities to go through a similar journey. The journey of realising your whole world has changed, the journey of rehabilitation, of wanting our ‘old lives’ back and then the journey of acceptance, which can look different for every person.

I spoke to more disabled people, both born disabled and with acquired disabilities and I saw how proud they were to be themselves, how much they embraced the social model and how they were not afraid to call themselves disabled. It changed my life. I started a new journey of acceptance, I stopped being so angry at myself, I stopped blaming myself for my disability, I accepted that this is my life and there should be no shame in it.

I realised that in all those pivotal moments in my life, through school, college and university, it was peoples ideas of disability and the narrative around it that drummed into me that it was bad to be disabled and why I felt such a need to prove I was ‘able’. I realised the impact positive role models from the community had and that if the narrative around disability had been different, and the language used around disability was that of the social model, I might have accepted myself and my disability a lot faster. It might even make the journey of acceptance for others with acquired disabilities a less traumatic experience.