How much being disabled has altered the course of a life - Victoria Brignell ponders whether being i
During the year I spent doing journalism training in Cardiff, a film was released called Sliding Doors. Starring Gwynneth Paltrow, it shows two versions of the same woman’s life. At the start of the film you see her running for a tube train. In the first plot line, she just manages to catch it while in the second, the sliding doors of the carriage close merely a couple of seconds too soon. From that point, you see her life unfolding in two different directions, with both stories running in parallel.
Now and again I wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn’t become paralysed from the neck down when I was six. Just as in Sliding Doors you see two alternative lives set out before you, sometimes I like to imagine there’s a parallel universe, exactly the same as this one, in which a non-disabled copy of me exists. If I had remained able-bodied, would I now be doing a different job? Would I be living in the same place? And would I be married?
I’m now a producer on Radio 4 but originally I set out to be a print journalist. My plan was to work my way up to being a political correspondent for a national newspaper. But despite undertaking plenty of work experience and successfully completing newspaper training at Cardiff University, I found it impossible to get a job. Although I must have applied to more than 30 local papers in East Anglia and the South East, only one gave me an interview and no job offer resulted from it.
Fortunately, the BBC came to my rescue. After six months on the dole, a friend of my mother spotted an advert for the BBC Disability Programmes Unit production traineeship and suggested I applied. The rest, as they say, is history.
Of course, I can’t prove it but I can't help thinking that my disability was a big factor in my failure to obtain a newspaper job. None of the other, able-bodied students on the same Cardiff training course had any problems gaining employment. Whenever I sent off my CV I was always open about being tetraplegic. Newspaper editors could see straight away that I couldn’t write shorthand – let’s face it, I can’t even hold a pen! And it wouldn’t surprise me if a certain old-fashioned dose of prejudice was involved too. I’m sure many editors simply assumed that a severely disabled woman couldn’t possibly be capable of working as a journalist.
So if I had not become tetraplegic, would I now be working on ‘Fleet Street’? Actually, I have my doubts about this. Although I had an early inclination towards working in print journalism, I’ve always admired the BBC in general and Radio 4 in particular. Believe it or not, I started listening to the Today programme when I was about nine years old in the era of the great Brian Redhead. (I enrolled myself into Redhead’s ‘Friends of the M6’ long before I had worked out exactly where the M6 was). For as long as I can remember, I’ve believed in the value of independent, impartial public service broadcasting and its importance in a democratic society. For this reason, I can’t help feeling that, sooner or later, I would have tried to obtain a post with the BBC.
How much effect has my disability had on where I live? My home in West London is a housing association flat which was purpose-built for a wheelchair user five years ago. It’s certainly the case that if I were not disabled, I wouldn’t be allowed to live in my current accommodation.
However, if I wasn’t living where I do now, I would be aiming to live somewhere very similar. It has virtually no garden (I’ve never had green fingers and have no desire to acquire any), it’s only half an hour’s journey from my workplace (that’s pretty good in London terms), and it’s at the end of a cul-de-sac which means I don’t have to suffer traffic noise (I can’t bear traffic noise). The area of London where I live isn’t particularly picturesque but only the very expensive parts of London are, and they will always be outside my price range. Yes, I’m happy in my present flat and my able-bodied counterpart would hopefully be living in the same kind of abode.
And what about marriage? I’m still single at the age of 31. Is that a consequence of my disability? When I was a little girl, in the years immediately after becoming disabled, I naively assumed that being a crip would make marriage unlikely. After all, the heroine in my favourite childhood book, the Ladybird edition of Cinderella, was whisked to the ball in a golden carriage, not a specially-adapted minibus. And the Prince identifies her by finding her abandoned shoe, not a nut that’s fallen off her wheelchair. No doubt there probably still are people (mainly in my grandparents’ generation) who jump to the conclusion that my lack of a spouse is a result of me being tetraplegic.
But by the time I had reached adolescence, I'd realised that disability is no barrier to marriage. During my life I’ve come across a number of wheelchair users who are very happily married. And I have several non-disabled acquaintances of a similar age to me who have also not tied the knot. To be honest, my single status owes much more to the fact I’ve never really made much of an effort to acquire a husband. Getting hitched has simply never ranked high on my list of priorities.
I wouldn't go as far as the character in Yasmina Reza's latest play God of Carnage who declares, "Marriage is the most terrible ordeal" but I did once joke to a friend that I would rather go to bed with a good book than a bloke (on the grounds that books are usually more interesting, definitely less messy and you can shut a book up whenever you want).
Maybe it’s all Jane Austen’s fault. Any real man is bound to compare unfavourably with Colin Firth’s portrayal of Mr Darcy in the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. And what with my full-time job, school governor duties, charity work and active social life, how on earth would I find time to fit in a husband as well?
So if I wasn't disabled I would probably be working for the BBC, living in a flat in West London and single - which is a fairly accurate description of my existence at the moment. Becoming disabled has had remarkably little impact, it seems, on the course my life has taken.
Admittedly I've never had any ambition to be an RAF pilot, a supermodel or a dancer with the Royal ballet. And I'm quite happy to leave mountain-climbing, skydiving and bungeejumping to others with kamikaze tendencies. It's also true that the day-to-day details of my life are different from what other people experience because I have to rely on personal assistants to help me with most tasks. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the main elements in my world would be largely the same regardless of whether I were disabled or not.
In Sliding Doors, you are led to believe that the woman's fate depends entirely on catching or missing that tube train. As you watch the two plots play out on the screen, this one moment seems to have a dramatic effect on how her life develops. Yet by the end of the film, in both versions of her life, she has met and fallen in love with the same man.
Sometimes life's turning points turn out not to be turning points after all.