Pete Donnelly has been using a wheelchair for 15 years. Here he tells us about his experience of wheelchair skills and what motivated him to start up The Wheelchair Skills College.
I don’t remember the accident itself. I think that a defence mechanism of the body to block out the trauma. What I do know is that when I woke up, life was in contrast to what it been a week earlier.
A motorbike accident at 19 years old had caused a shopping list of injuries. The most significant of my injuries was the break in my back that damaged my spinal cord causing paralysis from chest level down and thrusting me into a life I knew nothing about and cared little to know about before this point.
Now that my legs didn’t work, I needed an alternative way to get around. Often seen as a symbol of disability, I was going to learn that the wheelchair was going to become my freedom.
Having the skills to use any piece of equipment is essential to make sure that you can use it effectively. Having the skills to use a wheelchair is no different. It takes time, patience and dedication.
Leaving hospital, I was keen to get back to things that gave me a sense of normality. It was a mix of going back to adapted ways of doing old things like going back to college and trying out new things as well – playing wheelchair sport and driving with hand controls.
It was only through wheelchair skills training that I got an insight into what could really be achieved using a wheelchair. It was brilliant. No one can teach you as well as someone who has already walked, or rolled, that path.
There was no stopping me now. I returned home and was pushing myself further than I had before. No pun intended. Learning these skills had such a big impact on me that I wanted to give something back. A year later I trained to be a wheelchair skills trainer and have been doing it ever since.
Learning wheelchair skills changed the way I looked at everything. All of a sudden, the world seemed a lot more… possible.
Growing up I’d always had aspirations to travel, but the barriers had always seemed too big to make these dreams a reality. Ironically, now I was using a wheelchair I no longer saw those barriers as something that was going to stop me, but obstacles that I needed to overcome.
I was lucky enough to go on a lot of trips over the next couple of years. The one that stands out as the ultimate test of my wheelchair skills started when I was volunteering at a spinal rehabilitation centre in Bangladesh.
It was my first time out to the sub-Asian continent. Or any of the Asian continent, come to think of it. I had the best time over there and for me it’s what travel is all about. Different sights, smells, tastes, language, cultural norms.
In a moment of inspiration, or madness depending how you look at it, I decided to travel back home to the UK from Bangladesh without flying. I called it ‘Rolling Back Home’ – 5,000 miles, 15 countries, 2 continents and 1 set of wheels.
It took me 5 months to roll back home. It was far from an easy journey. Most of it was inaccessible and a real challenge. Exactly what I wanted. There were a lot of times when my stomach dropped looking at the path in front of me. But I always found a way to keep moving forwards.
Wheelchair skills have made such a difference to my life. Everything that I have achieved has been built on a foundation of being able to confidently use my wheelchair.
That’s why last year I set up The Wheelchair Skills College, with the aim of teaching wheelchair skills to every wheelchair user – all ages, all abilities.
To find out more about The Wheelchair Skills College visit www.wheelchairskills.org