As TV soap ‘Emmerdale’ tackles the sensitive issue of severe disability and assisted suicide, Peter Stanford talks to quadriplegics who have a more positive spin on life.
There has been a long-running controversy about the scarcity of disabled characters in Britain’s soap operas. But if Emmerdale, ITV’s Yorkshire-based tale of country folk, hoped to win plaudits from campaigners for its current plotline about a young man with a spinal cord injury, then its producers will have been disappointed. The widely reported revelation – albeit so far unconfirmed officially – that Jackson Walsh (played by Marc Silcock) is to choose assisted suicide over life as a wheelchair user, has prompted a chorus of complaints.
“Anybody who’s had a spinal injury,” says Simon Morris – who, like the Jackson character, has a “C3” or high-level spinal cord injury and has no movement below his neck – “will know that it is normal to have feelings of suicide when you are adjusting to your new life.”
Morris was 26 and an engineer in the Royal Navy at the submarine base at Faslane, on the Clyde, when a tumble down a hillside from a badly lit path while on holiday in Greece radically changed his life. “I remember, during the 20 months I spent on a spinal injury ward, how the doctors would come round and tell me all the things that were wrong with me, all the things I had lost as a result of my injury – for example bladder and bowel function. And yes, it did all seem very bleak at those times. I just thought, ‘when is it going to end?’”
Morris, though, came to see his accident as an opportunity. “It began when I discovered that, even though I can’t move my arms, I could use a head-stick to control a computer. That, I realised, was all I needed to study for a degree, which was something I’d been wanting to do for a long time but hadn’t been able to fit in with my career.”
He has since graduated in IT and maths from the Open University, gone on to take a masters in IT security, and is currently training to be an adult-education teacher. “Life is different,” says the 38-year-old who lives near Cardiff with his partner. “You can’t compare before and after, but I think I am like most people in my situation in that I choose not to focus on the negative but rather on all that I have been able to achieve.”
This is the very opposite of Jackson Walsh, who in Emmerdale has returned home from hospital to see his relationship with his partner Aaron (Danny Miller) come under strain. He is already showing the first signs of despairing of the future.
Although Emmerdale’s producers say they have studiedly avoided quoting any real-life cases, there are obvious parallels between the Jackson storyline and Daniel James, the 23-year-old rugby player left paralysed from the neck down after an accident on the pitch. In 2008, he was accompanied by his parents to the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland where he chose to end his life.
There have been other, high-profile cases of young men with high levels of spinal cord injury who feel they cannot go on. In 1986, the suicide of Philip Olds, a Metropolitan police officer shot and paralysed while on duty in 1980, also made headlines. But these are far from the norm for most in their situation.
There are around 40,000 people with spinal cord injury in Britain, and two or three new cases happen every day. The resulting level of paralysis depends on precisely where the spinal cord (which carries brain signals down the body to the limbs) is damaged. High-level injuries (tetraplegia or quadriplegia in which all four limbs can be paralysed), such as that sustained by Superman actor, Christopher Reeve, may require a ventilator to breathe. They make up about 50 per cent of the total. Lower level injuries (paraplegia) usually leave the individual unable to walk, but with upper body functions intact.
Until the Forties, spinal cord injury would often result in death, but thanks to the pioneering medical work of figures such as Ludwig Guttman at Stoke Mandeville Hospital that has changed radically. Most people with a spinal cord injury can now plan for a natural lifespan – though ventilator-dependent individuals face particular obstacles – but rehabilitation practice and broader social attitudes have changed pace to accompany that.
Most spinal cord injuries occur in those aged between 18 and 35, usually in road accidents, trips and falls, or in sports, with young men outnumbering young women by 60 to 40. In Emmerdale, Jackson, in his twenties, was injured last year when the van in which he was travelling was hit by a train. He has no movement in his limbs and since he has returned home from hospital has become increasingly dependent on his mother, Hazel, played by Birds of a Feather star, Pauline Quirke. She has reportedly been earmarked as the one who will assist in his suicide bid.
“Having your family as your carer is not healthy,” says Andrew Bush, a 29-year-old banker, who sustained a similar level injury to Jackson in a diving accident in Mexico 10 years ago. “My family was massively important for me when I was in hospital. I spent four months on bed rest before I was even allowed to sit up in a chair, and it was their love that kept me going.
“But as soon as I was able to move about in my wheelchair, I wanted to be have my own place, my own life, be independent. So since then I have employed a series of live-in personal assistants (or carers).” Such support is usually funded out of each individual’s “care package”, the allowances they receive to make possible an independent life.
Bush had been on a gap year when he had his accident. He now describes the year he spent on a spinal injury centre as “a second gap year” before he re-engaged with his long-standing plans to go to university. “Of course there are lots of issues,” he says, “and there is a huge adjustment. You have to reinvent your lifestyle from scratch. But whatever you do in your life, there are always challenges and changes. It is what you make of them that matters. And there are so many positives. Because, for example, I always had to have a personal assistant living-in [he is based in east London and is currently setting up his own business], I have had the chance to befriend all sorts of characters from all sorts of nations.”
The producers of Emmerdale are keen to point out the 18 months of research they undertook before embarking on the Jackson storyline. To balance out the negatives of his experience of disability, they have included a character, Steve Kelly, who has a similar level injury, and who articulates the more upbeat approach. He is played by Andy Walker, who was injured diving into the sea in Goa in 2006.
But some disabled young men of the same age as Jackson still worry about the overall message the soap is giving out about spinal cord injury. Matt King relies on a ventilator to breathe, following his injury in a rugby game at the age of 17. Now 23, King has recently graduated with a first in Law from the University of Hertfordshire and is just embarking on a career with a major firm of solicitors.
“I wouldn’t want viewers to come away from Emmerdale thinking that having a spinal cord injury is depressing, “ he says. “Of course there dark moments. But you don’t have to be disabled to feel like that. It’s part of human nature.
“I still go out with the guys for a good night, and I’ve competed in the New York Marathon, an ambition I had before my accident. Maybe my life is different now. It’s certainly not the life I would have chosen. But I want to be clear that I have a good life.”
‘Emmerdale’ is on ITV on weekday evenings. Peter Stanford is chair of Aspire, the national spinal injuries charity: www.aspire.org.uk
Original article: The Telegraph