Being me: what it really means to be disabled

Louise Page, who has had four amputations, explains how her disability hasn't changed her essential feeling of who she is.

It wasn’t until I started having bits of me cut off, that I truly understood what it meant to be a disabled person.

I remember one day, after one of my four amputations, that I said to my Dad, “you know, they can keep cutting bits of me away, but I’ll still be me”. And he instantly started to cry. That wasn’t my intention, to make my dad cry. But I think it was then that I genuinely understood physical disability.

When you first have an amputation, you have to wait eight weeks for the wound to heal and the swelling to go down before you can be fitted with a prosthetic. And then of course, you need to learn to walk with it. And at first, you can’t wear it all the time as your body needs to adjust to weight bearing on something that wasn’t designed for bearing the weight of your full body (ie a cut off tibia or femur). So of course there are lots of times you have to go out in public with crutches and a missing leg.

And that means people staring, some people do a double-take, some people try to look very subtly by just looking sideways, some properly stare for a while, I even once had a lady tap her friend on the shoulder and point at me. My approach has always been to ignore the staring. My mum told me I should give everyone who looks a big smile, but maybe I’m not as nice as she is! I just tell myself that I would do the same thing. If we see someone who looks different in any way – excessively thin or fat, or with crazily dyed hair or bad style (one I know I have to confess to… see, I am mean!), then we can’t help staring. It’s just human nature.  So I’ve decided I can handle it, though to be honest I wish it wouldn’t happen…

The picture above is me during my second year of chemo just after first amputation, Summer 2008

Anyway, the point I was making was that I’m still the same Louise. Weirdly people treat you as a hero or as someone who is especially brave, when you have cancer and/or a disability, especially one that makes dramatic visible changes to your body. And we all seem to think cancer patients will discover the true meaning of what’s important in life. And yes, I have (though I hope I knew that beforehand already). But we also don’t stop being ourselves. I carried on with my Vogue subscription and my addiction to shoes (yes shoes! An amputee who loves shoes… how crazy is that?!) and of course… the handbags (some of you will be breathing a knowing sigh…). But I also carried on being Louise. Wanting to see friends, get dressed up to go out for dinner, read books, go to the theatre, watch trashy TV…

So my disability didn’t change me at all, apart from making walking, carrying things, getting dressed, dancing, walking on a beach, balancing on a bus, dancing, sitting (I could go on forever but I won’t) a hell of a lot harder. I’ve always been me throughout.  And I’ve always tried really hard to make sure everyone around me sees and knows that.

And of course every one of us is different and wants different things from life, so I can only speak for myself. And I think that’s why Diana (my boss at Thistle) values me – because I understand. I just hope after reading this, more people will understand this now too. I may have a disability, but I don’t consider myself disabled (the parking badge comes in very handy though!).  I’m just Louise and no matter what has happened or is yet to happen, I always will be.

This blog was first published on alancainsley.wordpress.com and is reproduced here with permission

Louise. All pictures reproduced with her permission
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The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.