Nine years ago this July, I was on holiday with my mates to celebrate the end of our exams.
On the fifth day of our holiday surrounded by incredible friends on a hot beautiful beach, I did something I’d done a hundred times over. I ran down the beach and into the sea to a good depth and dived forward. I hit my head on the undulating sea bed and dislocated the fourth vertebrae in my neck leaving me unable to move anything from my neck down.
I spent three weeks in hospital in Portugal where my body and my mind went through a very, very tough time. My mind was taken to dark places I didn't know existed, and my body was taken to the brink of its life.
I then spent six months in hospital in England fighting. I had to start again, from learning how to breathe to getting as strong and as healthy as possible. During this time I gave up a lot of things to focus on my recovery, including doing anything creative.
My life was turned upside down but at some point you just have to let go of what you thought should happen and live in what is happening.
When you get bad news or circumstances change you have to deal with it. That means to accept what is, and to adapt. Because until you accept, you can’t move on, and you end up wasting energy ‘hoping things were better’. Since my accident I've had to learn a lot and learn fast. You always have to learn and adapt to life. Never think you are done with learning.
Before my accident, my life revolved around being active and doing physical things. It was my release. But now that has had to change to a more creative release: my art, my public speaking and writing my book.
Two and a half years ago I rediscovered my love and joy of art. I've always loved drawing and painting, but I let that love of creating drift away after my accident. For five and a half years I didn't go anywhere near it.
In January 2015 I had a sore that meant I was bedbound for a few weeks. I was getting rather bored and found an app on my iPad that I could use for drawing, by holding a stylus in my mouth and touching the screen. I loved it.
When my health had improved I was able to get out of bed and I taught myself how to draw and paint with actual pencils and paint, by attaching the utensils to a mouth stick.
Being able to move onto physical art pieces felt brilliant. It has opened up a thoroughly enjoyable new chapter in my life. When I was young I loved art. I use to draw or create anything, but as I grew older I started to fall out of love with the subject.
And it's funny because without that sore I would never have rediscovered my love of drawing, painting and creating. Adversity has given me a gift.
One thing I’ve learnt is that you must always keep your options open and make the most of every opportunity. Before my accident I was terrified of taking chances or opportunities in case I failed. But I've been shown life is too short to turn down opportunities when they are presented to you.
Public speaking was always one of my biggest fears. I couldn't even stand up in front of my classmates at school, but now it's a way of life for me. I still get horrendously nervous but once I finish I get a rush from it. Without my accident I would never have discovered that.
It's amazing where stepping outside your comfort zone can take you - but I warn you – it’s uncomfortable, and few are prepared to leave what is comfortable. It will take courage. It took me my accident to realise that.
That brings me to my book.
Never in a million years would I have thought that I would be releasing a book. I still remember when I was asked to do it. I just thought, why not? Why not give it a go? It's been a whole new process to me, but one I've thoroughly enjoyed.
I wanted to write a book that was honest, that didn't hold back about the way I was feeling both physically and mentally. I didn't want to sugar-coat anything. I wanted to show it's ok to feel down, it's ok to express how you feel. But I also wanted to show that people can overcome adversity and obstacles in life. I wanted the book to be one of hope, to show that no matter how tough things get we can still be positive. I wanted to show that being defeated is optional.
That is my personal story. I know there are many out there with a very similar story and attitude. But the one thing all wheelchair users and those with a disability can relate to is the simple struggle of day-to-day life. I'm not talking about mental struggles, but the struggle to be out leading a fully independent life without any trouble. This can come from people's attitudes towards those with disabilities, and from society’s lack of support to those who desperately need it.
Lots of the barriers for people with disabilities are not due to the disability itself but to a lack of understanding about disabilities. People see someone in a wheelchair and all they think is, “they can't walk”. I ignorantly thought that before my accident. People don't know about all the other consequences of being in a wheelchair. The lack of bladder and bowel control, the pressure on the skin and the damage that can cause, the lack of body temperature control, just to name but a few. Education on disabilities is a must.
Transport needs a big change and fast. People with disabilities should not have to fear leaving their homes, feel uncomfortable in public, or worry about the accessibility of buildings or public transport. Too often wheelchair users turn up to venues where they are told it is fully accessible but the lift is broken, or the toilet is broken, or the only entrance is through a small side door where the deliveries get dropped off. It is not ok! So many wheelchair users are stuck at home because public transport is so unkind. Accessibility is a basic right we all deserve.
Finally, maintaining dignity and independence while living life as a disabled person is still difficult. The more funding we can put into social care, the better. This makes a really positive impact on people's lives. Stress can cause so many health issues, and more pressure on day-to-day life. The added pressure of living with a disability is already too much. I will continue to campaign for this.
Sport is a great thing no matter if you are disabled or not. It promotes activity and health, it teaches discipline, and has an amazing social aspect too.
Wheelchair sport shows the power of the human spirit as all wheelchair athletes push their bodies beyond normal limits. To race at such high speeds with only arm power, to push a wheelchair whilst bouncing a basketball… wheelchair rugby is one of the most brutal sports I’ve ever seen!
Tanni Grey-Thompson, who recently met with disabled students from Commonweal School and Arbour Vale School to mark the 70th anniversary of wheelchair sport with WheelPower, deserves constant recognition for what she has done for wheelchair sport in this country. Not only has she inspired other wheelchair users to get involved in sport, but anyone with a disability.
All you have to do is to watch a few seconds of the Paralympics or Winter Paralympics to realise what incredible people these athletes are. The extra work, both physically and mentally, is huge. They are all successful in their own right, regardless of medals, and should be held up as role models for people of all ages and abilities. They show us that being defeated is very much optional, and adversity can bring you the most unexpected of gifts.
Henry Fraser is a mouth artist, motivational speaker and author of The Little Big Things, the 2017 WHSmith Non-Fiction Book of the Year, with the foreword by J.K.Rowling. He became paralysed from the shoulders down after an accident in 2009. More details can be found on his website at http://www.henryfraser.org/