Suzanne, our awesome hotel lister, information gather, wheelchair tennis player and all round Accomable team member extraordinaire, completed a wheelchair skills session with Freedom Wheelchair Skills. She gives us the lowdown on the course, and Stuart (Freedom Wheelchair Skills founder) tells us more about the company.
First up, Stuart, can you tell us more about yourself and Freedom Wheelchair Skills?
Stuart: Hi, I’m Stuart, founder of Freedom Wheelchair Skills. I was in a car accident when I was 17 resulting in a month in a coma and being paralysed from T4 (half way down my chest).
I got discharged from hospital and was immediately struck by the realities of living life in a wheelchair. The challenges of undulating terrain, people not seeing you in the busyness of crowds, finding work etc. I used to go out with my friends at the weekends but would stay fairly local, I guess I was afraid of the unknown!
After several years of facing these challenges, and with support from a spinal injuries charity, I gained my confidence to venture further and be lucky enough to experience things life has to offer. Now I am married with a 4 year old son, I holiday in any destination I want, love spending time with my family, and enjoy watching movies on the big screen, going to live gigs – especially watching Paul Weller and exploring the great out-doors.
My business, Freedom Wheelchair Skills, offers peer-led teaching of everyday skills and techniques to help people get the most out of life while using a wheelchair. Training wheelchair users how to use their wheelchairs in the most effective way, making the chair do the work for them, saving energy to enable the user to go further for longer. Teaching how best to tackle undulating terrain, negotiate kerbs, thresholds ramps and camber. The end result is hopefully that the user gains confidence, independence and is able to lead a more active life.
Stuart showing off some of his wheelchair skills
Great, thanks for the introduction! So, Suzanne, why did you decide to do a wheelchair skills course and what did you want to achieve?
Suzanne: After my accident 6 years ago I was offered the chance to learn some wheelchair skills when I was in hospital, but I was still adjusting to everything that had happened, so the last thing I wanted to do was learn how to do a wheelie and go up and down kerbs. I didn’t know what life in a wheelchair would entail and just how many steps, slopes, cobbles and kerbs there are everywhere. I have been wanting and needing to tackle these things for a long time, but it takes a lot of confidence to try them out by yourself. I wanted to have some guidance and tips from an expert. For me, the course was about learning these skills and having the confidence to then go away, put them into practice and use them in everyday life. Having one-on-one tuition allowed me to get specific guidance in the challenges that I face on a regular basis. For me this is kerbs, high door thresholds, steps and steep downward slopes.
I was so surprised that actually I picked up a lot of the skills during the session quite quickly. I think that because I have been a full time wheelchair user for 6 years, I actually probably already had a good feel for them, but it took the right kind of tuition and guidance to give me the confidence to try things out and tackle these obstacles.
Suzanne during her Freedom Wheelchair Skills session. During the session, someone has a safety cord attached from behind as a precaution.
I'd now like to practice these skills at home so that I feel confident enough to use them in my everyday life by myself. I am looking forward to the time when I approach a kerb and naturally flip onto my back wheels and go down it effortlessly and without having to slow down or stop (obviously I will check for oncoming traffic first!).
Suzanne practising her wheelchair skills at home
Sounds like you got a lot out of the course, and what Stuart hopes people get out of the course. I'd class that as a success!
So, Stuart, what do you see as your most interesting wheelchair skill?
Stuart: I think the coolest skills I have is the ability to descend several steps at once. It has certainly raised a few eyebrows when I have done this in public. The most interesting skill I use is being able to negotiate over rough terrain. When I go for country walks in the summer with my family, and end up being a considerable distance away from any smooth surface, in the middle of some woods for example, or 2 miles along the Thames path sat on the edge of a cow field. It’s rewarding knowing I can still do this… just the same as anyone else!
And Suzanne, do you have any advice for other people who are interested in developing their skills or who don't are lacking in the confidence to try these things out themselves?
Suzanne: I would 100% recommend going to Stuart at Freedom Wheelchair Skills to learn and to get advice on anything that you are not confident with. He has a wealth of knowledge and experience and it can sometimes be hard to come across people like that. He made me feel very relaxed and I was surprised at how quickly the time went and how much more confident I felt leaving the session.
It is hard to describe just how much more confident I will now feel when I am out and about. I have never enjoyed having to ask for help to go up or down a step somewhere, or to have to search for the nearest drop kerb so that I can cross a road. There are suddenly a lot less barriers and restrictions for me and it makes life so much easier.
Suzanne's review of her wheelchair skills course
If you're interested in finding out more about Freedom Wheelchair Skills, check these out: