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Sophie Elwes from Our Adaptive World
Photograph: Andy Parsons

Meet the Londoner challenging the limitations of disability

By Paula Akpan

After becoming paralysed from the chest down, Sophie Elwes decided to show others that being disabled doesn’t mean giving up on adventure…

In 2011, I was 22. I had recently graduated from university and landed a job in events. That was also the year I lost my balance while on a roof terrace and fell seven metres. I broke my back and was paralysed from the chest down.

I was rushed to King’s College Hospital, where I spent five weeks in intensive care in an induced coma. My parents were told that I had a 40 percent chance of surviving. A severe head injury meant my spinal injury wasn’t an immediate priority.

Being paralysed only became a reality after I went for rehabilitation. I freaked out the first time I got into a wheelchair, but with wide corridors and ramps everywhere, hospitals were really easy to get around. The big challenge came after I was discharged.

I couldn’t get into my old flat because of the number of stairs, so I moved back in with my parents for a while. One day, a friend and I decided to go to the cinema. I had been there plenty of times before, but never realised it had lots of steps and no lift. That’s when I realised how inaccessible London can be for people like me.

A few months later, I went away on a skiing trip with Back Up, a charity that supports people affected by spinal cord injury. It was a game-changer. I met other disabled people and got back into skiing. I didn’t even know that was possible, but I ended up joining the British Parasnowsport Development Team. That was where I met Beth, who is also paralysed from the waist down.

We often discussed our passion for travelling and adventure, as well as the fact that people rarely see that side of disability. So we decided to create a blog, Our Adaptive World, to show people they could also have these exciting experiences.

The response has been incredible. People from all over the world have got in touch to share their experiences, ask us questions and thank us for telling our stories. Unexpectedly, we ended up building a community.

We wanted to start important conversations about navigating cities like London, which mostly aren’t accessible. Most tube stations aren’t step-free and buses aren’t always convenient. What’s most off-putting is when people treat you badly, or try to push you across the road when you haven’t asked for help. However, since my injury, I’ve seen another side of London. There are people out there who will go out of their way to make your experience a good one.

Our blog encourages people to challenge themselves, and one way I’ve decided to push my boundaries this year is by taking on the London Marathon. I find it annoying when people have low expectations for disabled people: they’re amazed that I have a job and live by myself. Taking on this huge personal challenge is a way of raising money for Back Up, who showed me what was still possible, while sticking two fingers up to those who say I can’t do it.

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