'Nothing in life is normal any more': Marianne Macdonald meets a tetraplegic woman who is too busy to dwell on her misfortune

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The Independent Online
A RELATIONSHIP is one item on the endless list of things Michelle Howard has learnt to do without since she became paralysed 12 years ago.

The others include having sex, a good social life, wearing skirts, washing herself, going to the lavatory in private, walking up stairs, dancing to music and dressing herself. As she puts it: 'Nothing in life is normal any more.'

Her life changed for ever when she was 16. Doctors decided she had stopped growing and could undergo an operation to correct her receding lower jaw. The morning after her operation in Poole General Hospital in November 1982 she woke up unable to feel anything below her chest. When she raised her arms they flopped to the floor.

Her jaw was wired together and it took some time to attract a nurse's attention. When she did there was panic. She was immediately moved to Southampton General Hospital where tests were done for three months. Then she was told she would never recover.

Last year she sued Wessex Health Authority for damages, claiming her condition was the result of undue pressure, which fractured her spine during the operation. She lost. The authority argued that her rare condition would have occurred whatever she had been doing the previous day. It meant she got no financial award to cover the many additional costs of being disabled.

As a result her life is a constant struggle to pay for equipment, care and services. As a tetraplegic Miss Howard, 28, is paralysed from the chest down. She has partial use of her arms but no finger movement and permanently wears a catheter. Dressed in fashionable clothes and wearing professional- looking make-up, she does not immediately strike you as disabled. But when you shake her hand you realise that the movement is almost impossible for her.

With the help of her parents she finished her A-levels after becoming tetraplegic, got a 2:2 in law from Southampton University and now practises as a solicitor in Swindon, Wiltshire. Her firm, Townsends, was the only one to offer her a job.

Her covering letter for every job application began: 'I am a tetraplegic, which means I am permanently confined to a wheelchair . . .'

About 10 firms did interview her, although she is unsure whether this was bloody-mindedness in some cases. At one, in Portsmouth, the solicitor kicked off by asking: 'Can you tell me, Miss Howard, how you would explain to a client about your disability?' She replied: 'You were sitting behind a desk when I came in. Would I be doing any different?'

Another took place in Oxford. When she arrived with her father, a college lecturer, she was marooned at the bottom of the six steps leading to the office. 'You didn't tell us you were in a wheelchair,' a man said accusingly. 'Yes, I did,' said Miss Howard. He denied it, and they began shouting at each other in the crowded high street.

Eventually he checked her application and returned in embarrassment, blaming his secretary. Only then did he get helpers to lift her up the steps. Then he interviewed her.

Incidents like this occur often. When she arranges to meet other lawyers for the first time - Swindon's courts are accessible by wheelchair - they scan the room, their eyes passing over her as if she was invisible.

Her day is an obstacle course. She is woken at 5.45am by her live-in nurse partly paid for by the Government, who gives her a bed bath. The nurse dresses her in her specially made trousers, helps with her make-up and at 8.15am drives her to work, where she uses an adapted telephone and computer.

She is collected at 5pm by the nurse, who cooks her dinner and puts her to bed at 9pm.

Miss Howard had never had a boyfriend before she became disabled, and has only had one, non- sexual, relationship since. That was at university and lasted two years until she finished her law degree. But about this, as all other things, she is uncomplaining. 'I would like to get married, but it's not my major priority at the moment,' she explains. It is not easy to form relationships when a lover must double as mother, cook and nurse.

Yes, she admits, she does sometimes think: 'Why me?' But she adds: 'You have to get on with life. If you don't, you'll end up like a lot of people - getting up late in the morning, going to the pub to drink yourself silly, and waking up thinking, 'This is another morning I don't want to be here'.' Being disabled was not the end of her world. She is too busy to dwell on her misfortune.

(Photograph omitted)