Richard sustained his spinal cord injury in 1992 and has worked as an Aspire Assistive Technology volunteer since 2007.

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My injury

I was paralysed by a spinal cord injury in 1992, when I was 22.  At the time I was working in the navy in Scotland, on submarines.  I had the weekend off and went for drinks with friends.  At the end of night when the pub closed, I thought it would be a good idea to dive into Loch Lomond; I dived in and hit my head on the bottom.  Although I didn't know it at the time, I had a C5/6 fracture immediately. I remember being upside down in the water and thinking my arms must be stuck in the mud because they wouldn't move.  At first my friends thought I was messing about, but they grabbed me and got me out.

When I was in hospital, I remember thinking that if I was told my spinal cord was severed then I wouldn't be able to walk again and if they didn't say that it would be ok. I had no understanding of what a spinal cord injury was.

I was operated on quickly and moved to the Spinal Injury Centre within three weeks of my injury.  Once I was there, I had the gradual realisation of what had happened.  No one ever said that I would never walk again, it was more about framing it as significant damage; that I was unlikely to walk again and would probably need to use a wheelchair. After a few months I started to realise what a massive impact it had that my arms and hands were impaired, that's the thing that really affected me.

I wasn't aware at the time the impact my injury had on my friends and family.  I was in the bubble and safety and security of the Spinal Injury Centre, which was really important.  I didn't understand the devastating effect it has on a family and think that family support is missing in Spinal Injury Centres.  Families go through the accident just as much as the person injured.  They're supposed to be strong and put on a brave face for the person going through the trauma, but actually you're all going through it.

During my rehabilitation, I remember needing to go to the toilet but thought I'd need to ask a nurse for help.  They said "you can do it yourself".  I didn't know how but I tried and was 50% successful, but I realised I'd be able to do it. You have to stop saying you can't do something until you've tried.  Anything you can do on your own is significant as it means you don't have to rely on having someone around all the time.

Richard sitting in his wheelchair

Life after injury

I got into sport when I was in the Spinal Injury Centre. At that time sport was the main channel used for therapy.  There was a wheelchair rugby team based there and they would come onto the ward and chat to us.  I would watch them and think "how would I ever be able to do that?"  The team were able to share their experiences and I'd ask things like "you drove here?", "you've been on holiday?" ... "how?"  I was fairly positive in thinking there would be opportunities for me, but I didn't know what they were. Hearing them talk like that really inspired me and made me more positive.

I've now been the President of World Wheelchair Rugby (WWR) for four years. It's a significant role that I really enjoy. I want to ensure that people get the opportunity that I did, it makes a difference. I get to travel and go to events such as the Paralympic Games.  My volunteer role with Aspire is very different and gives me a good balance. I can go into the hospital and leave everything else behind.  It's the balance that the two roles give that's important to me, I wouldn't want to be without either of them.

Assistive Technology

I've always been associated with the Spinal Injury Centre in Sheffield in some way. In the early days I'd work with the Occupational Therapists doing peer support, then technology came along. When I was injured in 1992 technology was so different.  DragonDictate was on the scene but wasn't easy to use. Other technology was coming along which I could see had potential but wasn't yet usable, but over the next ten years it started to get better.  I was working with patients and computers in hospital when Aspire came along in 2006 and formalised things by creating Assistive Technology centres in the Spinal Injury Centres.

Technology is now such a massive part of life, it's integral in everything we do.

It varies as to what people want to do online.  Someone might just want to make a phone call but for other people everything they do is on their phone.  I worked with someone who wanted to use emojis when messaging their friends. They thought it was going to be difficult, but I showed them how; those little things make a big difference.

Richard at work in the hospital

Over the last five years patients have started coming in with their own devices wanting to be able to access them - it's moved away from people needing to be able to work a laptop or computer. This is more difficult but it's a good way to go.

I volunteer with Aspire two afternoons a week. I enjoy being with patients and chatting with them, particularly being able to share my experiences in the early days of someone else's injury, because I know that really helped me. If I can do that for one person, I know it's going to make a massive difference to them.

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