How long have you used a wheelchair?
Having a progressive muscular disorder I have used a wheelchair of some form or other for my entire life which will be 51 years this year.
When I was born there wasn’t really any government provision providing equipment like this but I was lucky enough to be put in touch with a charity for retired engineers. They assigned me an engineer who designed a power chair based on my favorite TV show at the time “Starsky and Hutch”. It was made of timber and used parts that he had begged and borrowed. It was also very low to the ground, but I loved it!
At my special school I had to use a manual wheelchair. However, I did not have the strength to propel myself properly. When I got home I could transfer into my low rider and was suddenly independent.
What are your biggest challenges you must face as a wheelchair user?
As a wheelchair user one of the biggest obstacles would have to be basically inadequate provision in the physical environment. Throughout my 50 years of life I have seen vast improvements to this but there is still a long way to go and I often find myself barred from entry into somewhere due to steps or having to make convoluted journey plans because the standard transport is inadequate.
As a disabled man separate from my wheelchair, I see the challenges as both external and internal. By this I mean I still come up against well-meaning but negative attitudes in other people which I try to combat with patience and humor rather than anger and shaming.
I’ve always found that patience and humor is more likely to win someone round and change their attitude permanently. The internal challenges I referred to are my own self-motivation. My condition can result in extreme fatigue with very little exertion. There are also many aches and pains that have to be endured so I’m constantly in dialogue with my self to keep moving forward, keep exploring the world and to keep enjoying life.
How has being in a wheelchair change the way you deal with your daily life?
The issues and problems all wheelchair users have to face were the crucible in which my stubborn streak was born. You can only spend so much time sitting on the sidelines and missing out before you decide that enough is enough. When you come to this conclusion you decide that you will find a way to take part, to experience the things you want to experience and in that moment you begin your journey to stubborn lateral thinking. This is one of the main assets that disabled people are forced to cultivate. We can think our way around problems and obstacles because we have to. And I can truly say that this asset has allowed me to do pretty much everything that I would have done if I didn’t have the condition Spinal muscular atrophy (apart from play fly half for Ireland).
Did you pursue an education?
In my school years the government was pursuing a policy of segregation. With all the best intentions of concentrating resources I could see that this “one size fits all” policy was wrong.
I attended 3 separate schools, each of which had as the pinnacle of its possible academic achievement a CSE which at the time was a lower level qualification than a GCSE. My parents fought furiously with the education authorities to convince them that I was capable of mainstream level education and finally at the age of 15, I was included in a pilot study where I was sent away one day a week to a comprehensive school to see if I could cope with a GCSE. Due to the success of this a larger group of students from year below me were sent to the same comprehensive school full-time in the following year.
After leaving school I went on to attend Hereward College in Coventry which was my first taste of independence outside of the family home. Rather than embracing the academic opportunity I instead embraced this freedom. I hit every pub, club, gig and party I could find and had 3 of the most fun years of my life. I was lucky enough to still pass the courses I was on but decided to leave and join the world of work.
I worked in the building industry for almost 20 years before I decided to try my hand at the Open University. I made this decision as I always felt that my lack of commitment when the opportunity finally came to me had held back my career progression. I also had the nagging doubt of whether I would be capable or not. I signed on for an honors degree in psychology with the hope that I would get good enough grades for a passing mark. A few years later and a lot of hard work and sleepless nights and I had attained a first class honors degree and am now a graduate member of the British psychological Society.
What you do for a job or career?
As I mentioned above I worked in the offices of a building company for a little under 25 years processing all of their accounts, wages and maintaining their IT infrastructure. When the recession forced the company to close I volunteered briefly for the charity Mind.
There are times life sends you off in an unexpected direction. After a chance meeting at a friend’s 40th birthday party, I met my now good friend Srin Madipalli who co-owned 2 businesses with his friend Martyn Sibley. It just so happened that at this time they were looking for some help.
I began working for both Disability Horizons and the new travel property company Accomable. Before long the accessible travel property company Accomable was picking up so much momentum that I began working exclusively on this project as the head of property recruitment. My job was primarily sourcing, assessing and recruiting accessible holiday properties for inclusion on the website. This job was immensely good fun as the small team working on it all had a feeling of ownership and commitment, a feeling that we were creating something positive and life enhancing.
Accomable went from strength to strength until finally it got on the radar of the travel giant Airbnb. After extensive negotiations it was decided that being part of the Airbnb family was the most sustainable way to push forward the boundaries of accessible travel. Unfortunately for me it meant I was no longer able to continue my work in that field. After a brief conversation with Martyn Sibley I began working back at Disability Horizons this time as the Partnerships Manager.
My role now is trying to cultivate relationships with other businesses both in and out of the inclusion sector to generate streams of revenue to help sustain and forward all of the good work DH was doing. Being in a small team of mostly volunteers it still feels like the early days of Accomable, in that I never quite know what each day will bring me.
What are your hobbies?
I always have a problem with this question on job applications. As a child I had a mild obsession with geology and paleontology after finding an ammonite encased in stone on the beach one holiday. This got me wondering what other treasures were out in the countryside. I subsequently began collecting all manner of interesting rocks minerals and ammonites. As an adult however I have spent almost no time in that environment. My spare time is spent with my wife and newborn child.
What places have you traveled?
This is not an easy question to answer as I’ve been lucky enough to travel to many places over my 50 years. After my work at Accomable my travel bucket List is still as long as it ever was and I plan to visit each and every place on it before my time is up.
Some of the highlights that have stuck with me over the years would be my trip to Singapore and Malaysia, attending a bullfight in the French Pyrenees, taking a boat trip out onto Lake Michigan, waking up to the view of 5 separate rainbows over Clew Bay in the west of Ireland and my own honeymoon in Marazion down in the beautiful South coast of Cornwall.
Have you had to deal with any obstacles while traveling?
Being disabled usually means planning every trip like an intricate military maneuver. The barriers that have to be overcome are the usual accessible transport, accessible accommodation and accessible excursions. A solution that my wife and I have recently found to the stress that all of this intricate planning entails is accessible cruising. For us this is the perfect compromise as once we have reached the ship, all that’s left to do is relax and the destinations come to us.
Who helped you the most to become who you are today?
Again this is a very difficult question to answer as many people have contributed both negatively and positively to who I am today.
Everybody that ever said I couldn’t, simply strengthen my resolve to prove them wrong.
My parents, both for never treating me any different than my able-bodied sister and for their fierce advocacy of my interests.
Srin and Martyn, for giving me a chance and for pushing me to do things outside of my comfort zone.
My wife, for being amazing.
My lifelong friends Bryn and Mike, for getting in and out of some of the most fun trouble with me.
Were there any books, podcasts events or people that helped you along your journey?
I don’t know if this is appropriate but I would say my experiences at the open University were immensely helpful. It taught me to raise my expectations of myself and it taught me that I was capable of more discipline than I had previously displayed.
The only closing thought I would like to add is that I have found that life is guaranteed to occasionally not follow your plans no matter how well thought out and intricate they are. The only thing to do is re-evaluate and move forward. This has got me through a number of hard situations and has forced me to be a little less rigid.
You can learn more about Chris at Disability horizons and on Twitter and FaceBook.