Today, 1 March is International Wheelchair Day and Chris Nash, an elite wheelchair racer who lives in Southbourne, has shared his experiences.
In 2015 Chris became the first person to cross the finish line in the newly refurbished Olympic stadium, winning the wheelchair race at the Great Newham London 10k. Other notable achievements include winning the 2018 Yorkshire Marathon, alongside a top 10 finish in the world’s biggest half marathon and 12th in Europe’s biggest marathon the same year. 2019 has seen him take the title at the Reading Half Marathon and the Great Bristol 10k.
He said, “I’ve not always been in a wheelchair, and I think that comes with positives and negatives. I feel injustices deeply because there are things I know I could do before that I can’t now, but it’s also made me stubborn, and determined to do everything I can, not just to improve access and opportunities for myself but for other wheelchair users too.
“When I first started to struggle with my mobility and ended up in a wheelchair, I was convinced that was the end of life as I knew it. I guess like much of society I saw a wheelchair as a backwards step, that it was simply a barrier to buildings, to opportunities and to life. It was my parents who first helped change my perception when they told me about an advert they’d seen to participate in the Great South Run for charity. As I’d previously been aiming to run a marathon for charity – a huge goal of mine – this connected with me. Before I knew it, I was signed up to push 10 miles (less than half my old goal!) for the stillbirth and neonatal death charity Sands in memory of my twin brother Gareth, and suddenly I had a purpose to leave the flat and get out – I needed to be fit.
“Looking back, that moment, and that race, changed the course of my life because I no longer saw my wheelchair solely as a negative thing – I was still able to achieve things. I caught the buzz and spent the next year doing more pushes in my NHS day chair (and seeing the look of horror on my wheelchair OT’s face when I told him what the chair was going through!) I was lucky enough to get to try a racing wheelchair thanks to a family in Poole who do so much for disability sport locally, and after that there was no going back. I was soon travelling all over the country to do as many races as I could – being lucky enough to win races in the London Olympic Stadium, and not only complete my dream of finishing a marathon but winning the Yorkshire Marathon twice and landing 12th place in Europe’s biggest marathon, the Paris marathon. Whilst participating in elite races I was also lucky enough to be able to support a number of charities I care deeply about and engage children and families in conversations about racing, letting children try my chair – eager for them to see the positives.
“Whilst so much of the last few years has been about my racing it’s not everything – in fact injury stopped me racing about 18 months ago. I’m lucky to have a great job and have had supportive bosses who are always ready to help when I might need a bit more support than the average employee. For them, and for me now, my wheelchair isn’t a problem – just the way I get around.
“For me that’s where the biggest shift has been the last few years. Where once a wheelchair was a negative it’s now an incredible positive. Without my chair I wouldn’t be able to get around, go out with friends, go to football or gigs, go to work or participate in sport. My wheelchair allows me to have a relatively normal life, doing all the things I enjoy, something which would otherwise be impossible. On the odd occasions when something does go wrong (a puncture or a faulty wheel) I am reminded of just how essential my wheelchair is whilst I await a fix and rely on others to do absolutely everything for me.
“And yet even when my wheelchair is good, there is one thing that does still stop me. It staggered me when I first ended up in a wheelchair, and continues to stagger me today, how far we still have to go in making our society wheelchair accessible. I’m ashamed that much of this is things I never noticed as an able-bodied person, but now I make it my mission to bring as much attention to these issues as I can. A public transport system that is not cut out for wheelchair users – whether that’s buses that require manual ramps that some drivers don’t want to bother with, so they’ll just drive past you, or trains that require 24 hours advance booking and even then you’re not guaranteed they’ll remember to bring the ramp (that’s if your local station is accessible, which mine isn’t). A lack of dropped kerbs that mean I have to cross over the road in a certain place just to get into my own home. Shops, restaurants and entertainment venues that still don’t have wheelchair access or that you have to book in a special way. Job interviews where I’ve been categorically told my wheelchair was the barrier. I could go on.
“A word that’s often used when talking about those with disabilities is ‘inspirational’. I can only speak for myself, but I hate the word. Most of the time it’s used to suggest that just getting on with daily life is some form of amazing achievement, which it really isn’t. The one amazing thing is not me, but my chair. I wouldn’t, and couldn’t, be without it. But with it, I’m just a normal person that wants to be able to get on with life the same as everybody else. What I’ve learnt is that in 2021 I still have to fight for that right sometimes. So next time you see a wheelchair user struggling to get into a shop or venue, ask yourself what the problem is and how it can be fixed. My wheelchair allows me to get around and yet there are still places I can’t get in to. In 2021 we should be doing better – so that getting on with life, getting on trains, or holding down a full-time job isn’t ‘inspirational’, it’s just normal.”
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