Get Up Off That Thing

Using a wheelchair doesn't mean Sandy Eifion-Jones takes life sitting down. Gareth Mason tries to keep up...

Sandy has always been an active type. A regular swimmer and rider, her busy and varied life juggles family, voluntary work, novel writing, freelance journalism and for an added splash of colour, she’s a registered model. Sounds a bit like the semi-mythical ‘superwoman’ touted by lifestyle magazines over the last decade, the type of composite character born out of statistics and trends rather than the more conventional womb.

But while Sandy is real – the CV skips some information most would consider crucial. Fourteen years ago, she collapsed after the birth of her daughter. This left her needing to be bathed and dressed and virtually bed-ridden. At the time, she couldn’t even turn the pages of a book. While this cataclysmic event would transform life as we know it to the average able-bodied person, the focus of Sandy’s life is much as it was.

‘Previously, my main sporting interest was swimming – as a former county champion I was swimming 100 lengths a week,’ says Sandy. ‘And as a qualified beauty therapist, I ran my own salon.’

If Sandy defies the stereotype of the disabled as a victim, there are now plenty of high-profile examples. Superman actor, Christopher Reeve, battling to overcome paralysis; the academic success of Steven Hawkins; the sporting exploits of multiple medal winners like Tanni Grey-Thompson; and the glamour of ‘Beatle-bride’, Heather Mills, are all positive examples of success in the face of adversity.

Another is Natalie du Toit, an 18-year-old South African swimmer, who was named outstanding athlete of the Commonwealth games after winning gold medals in multi-disability competitions before reaching the final of an able-bodied event. She had lost a leg in a road accident just a year earlier. Straddling both these sporting worlds is rare. One example is the experience of an American ice-hockey player who enjoyed the shock on her opponent’s face when her prosthetic leg slid off and away after a hard tackle!

But otherwise, thousands of less visible people are living full lives without the media plaudits and attention. To regain the momentum of her life, Sandy had many hurdles to overcome. ‘There are many support structures nationally but you really have to find out about them yourself. I’ve met many people facing disability who have never heard of (the magazine) Disability Now or even know where to buy an electric wheelchair – it’s a case of asking, looking and stumbling upon things yourself.’

Several things helped Sandy get back on track. Her golden retriever, Raq, ‘rescued me from depressing housebound despair’ while horse-riding ‘let me forget the wheelchair giving me a feeling of normality and liberation. For once, you’re at a height way above everyone else!’ While Sandy rides independently, groups like Riding for Disabled can be found all over the country staffed almost entirely by volunteers.

Sheila Neale from the Diamond Riding Centre in Carshalton, Surrey, says the 400 or so rides that the centre organises weekly cater for all disabilities though clients need a doctor’s note. ‘We try and have as much variety as possible’, says Sheila. ‘We’ve had blind people doing dressage – even jumping. I once tried a round with my eyes shut – it was bizarre!’

Fear of litigation means instructors must now be trained and keep logbooks. Louise Dyson of Visible People, the model and acting agency for which Sandy works, says her employees are ‘The kind of highly motivated, cheerful, business-like, well-groomed and eminently ‘able’ people a client would expect to find on the books of a successful modelling and acting agency. ‘The very word ‘disabled’ and its implicit idea of ‘un-able’ is laughable in view of the number of Olympic gold medallists and successful business women and men on my books,’ says Louise. ‘The sooner we regard disability like any characteristic such as red hair colour or tanned skin, the better.’

As for Sandy, it’s attitude as much as activity which shapes her outlook. ‘Retain your personality,’ she advises. ‘Don’t feel you have to sink into some kind of expected role. Dress positively with style and bright colours – it’s easy to feel you should now look dull and drab. If you want to look sexy, do so. Be courteous, and give people a chance to understand. Help people to see you, not the chair.’ Lack of access to buildings and abuse of parking areas often head the list of frustrations for people with disabilities.

While these irritate Sandy, she is practiced at being positive throughout the constant challenges presented by meeting new people and situations. Sandy’s self-esteem was low when her focus was more on her wheelchair than herself. That’s now a thing of the past. And while she has the lifestyle to release everyday tensions, she’s not worried about losing her temper from time to time.

‘I make a point of not apologising but explaining why – that I just have normal emotions which are far healthier to release.’ The differences between us all make a mockery of that term ‘normality’. But to live a full and fulfilling life takes a lot more hard work for some people than others. Sandy is getting everything she can out of life. Are you?

Women’s Health magazine 2003