Attitudes to disability have changed beyond recognition since the days in the Seventies when I used to be out with my mother, a wheelchair user, and people would stop us to congratulate her for having "managed to get out of the house".
But the arrival of discrimination legislation, the Paralympics and a growing number of outstanding individuals on the national stage who happen to be disabled doesn't mean that the battle to end prejudice is over. There remains a profound ignorance as to what it is really like to live with a disability. Until we can challenge that, mental barriers will remain that hinder the development of truly fulfilled lives for people such as the author of Looking Up.
Tim Rushby-Smith was a successful landscape gardener in his thirties – tall, tanned and awaiting the arrival of his first child – when he fell out of a tree and sustained a spinal-cord injury. He woke up in hospital to learn that he would never again be able to walk unaided, control his bladder or bowels, or get an erection. Looking Up charts how he and his wife, Penny, coped with a devastating diagnosis, an account framed by the arrival of their daughter, Rosalie.
As Rushby-Smith watches her take her first steps, his sense of the mobility he has lost is inevitably heightened. But this isn't a downhearted book. It is full of hope, humanity and humour – never more so than when Rushby-Smith tackles the taboo of sex and disability.
At a time when politicians are full of draconian plans to limit spending on disability benefit, Looking Up highlights areas they could more profitably reform – such as the appalling delays and imperfect treatment suffered by people who need support, not disincentives, to rebuild their lives.
Rushby-Smith is taken, straight after his injury, not to one of the 11 specialist spinal-injury centres in the NHS, but to a general hospital. He is given inadequate, damaging treatment while his transfer to the famous Stoke Mand-eville Centre is laboriously negotiated. Once through the rehabilitation process, he has to wait for more than a year until his local council can agree a modest grant to make his home accessible. Thankfully, he is a man with the inner resources to make our imperfect system work, and emerge with a world of possibilities. Others, you can't help suspecting, are not so fortunate.
Peter Stanford is chair of the national spinal injuries charity Aspire
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