Paul Woolley was involved in a car accident in 2003 and sustained a T7 complete spinal cord injury. He is an Independent Living Advisor at Aspire and is passionate about gardening and encouraging people with spinal cord injuries to find ways to continue doing the things they love.

Gardening has been in my blood since I was a boy. I remember following my dad around as a small child and helping him to grow vegetables to help with the housekeeping budget. Since then I’ve worked on farms and gardens for most of my adult life, and now vegetable gardening is my main hobby.

Paul Woolley gardening

Before my spinal cord injury I worked as the head groundsman at a local hotel, with 100 acres to look after. I was incredibly lucky to be able to return to my job after I left the hospital, and I feel it was the best rehabilitation I could have had. I carried on working full time for four years, and then a further four years part time, but I began to find it difficult to get ready at 7:30am and the often wet and cold weather began to take its toll.

Around this time I was given the opportunity to work as an Independent Living Advisor at Aspire to help other people with spinal cord injury. I found the work very rewarding and so I decided to retire from my groundskeeper job to focus on my new role full time. I’ve been an Independent Living Advisor for over nine years now, and knowing I’m able to really help people and make a positive impact on their lives makes me feel very proud. Going back into work helped me to realise that if you want to do something enough you will find a way, no matter what the obstacles, and that’s what I want to pass on to the people I work with.

I’ve always loved being outside even when the British weather is doing its worst, and I feel happiest when I’m in the garden or greenhouse. Gardening has been a big part of my life, and my spinal cord injury has not stopped me enjoying this.

Instead of seeing my spinal injury as a barrier, I look for ways that I can adapt to allow me to still do the things I used to.

Paul Woolley gardening

When people know I enjoy gardening they assume I would need raised beds, however I use a large amount of garden and raised beds would limit the amount I could grow, so I prefer gardening at ground level. It’s more challenging, but it is possible!

Sowing seeds into the ground when sitting by the side of the bed in my wheelchair was one of the first obstacles I found a way around. Rather than trying to reach over the ground, I sow the seeds into a piece of water pipe cut lengthwise in half then tip all of the seeds into the ground in one go. For larger seeds, I will put them down a pipe and watch them come out of the other end where needed. When it comes to plants, I’ve added a long handle onto my trowel so that I can use it whilst I’m seated. This allows me to dig a small hole with it and I can then transfer the plant into the hole using this same tool.

Getting my wheelchair and its wheels dirty has been a bit of a problem, but it’s one with a much simpler fix. Instead of trying to wash my wheelchair down each time, I now use a different chair for when I’m in the garden and I keep this in the shed, so it doesn’t matter if it gets muddy.

I’m still learning new ways to achieve the end results I want, and I have accepted that most things will take me a bit longer to do than they used to, but I usually get there in the end!

Tips for gardening at ground level using a wheelchair:

● Use a wheelchair that will give you good stability to make sure you’re safe.
● Look for ways you can adapt your technique or equipment to overcome barriers.
● Find the tools that work for you - tools with interchangeable heads can be useful as it
means you won’t have to carry so many different ones.
● Invest in a pair of good waterproof padded trousers and a jacket.
● Be careful not to get too cold and wet.

Paul Woolley gardening

Independent Living

Living with Spinal Cord Injury

How we help