For many people who sustain a Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) the most overwhelming consequence of it is that life, as they once knew it, totally and irrevocably changes.
We know that many of our clients cannot imagine having their independence back. Hobbies, which they may have been passionate about beforehand, suddenly become a monumental struggle. It is, therefore, no wonder that the thought of full-time work or exploring unknown parts of the world just seems like impossible dreams.
Last Friday (15th May 2015) was National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Day and the SIA’s theme this year was that of ‘milestones’, with the hashtag #mymilestone trending throughout the day. Here at Bolt Burdon Kemp we’ve been thinking about our own personal milestones, and how important it is for those with Spinal Cord Injuries to regain their quality of life and be shown all of the possibilities that the future holds, not just the limitations.
Working with a colleague who has a spinal cord injury
Mariel Stringer- Fehlow
I work in the Spinal Injury team at Bolt Burdon Kemp and the head of Spinal Injury, Raquel Siganporia, is spinal cord injured (T6/T7). Working for Raquel has totally changed my own awareness of how possible it can be for someone who is spinally injured to not only work full-time but to thrive in an environment which is not naturally geared up towards accommodating complex injuries.
Bolt Burdon Kemp was established over 25 years ago and their offices were not initially fully wheelchair accessible. However when Raquel applied for the position of a solicitor, she informed them of her needs and explained what sort of adaptations would be needed in order for her to work to her potential. These adjustments were met in full and Raquel has remained with the firm ever since.
Most work environments now have to make adjustments for the occupational needs of their disabled staff and ensure their premises are reasonably accessible, but there are still a myriad of issues that can arise in the workplace which I would have previously seen as very off-putting for someone to have to navigate. This can range from ensuring that the rest of the office don’t use the only disabled toilet on that floor, even if “just for a second, promise”, or hoping that after-work drinks take place at somewhere with disabled access.
Access to premises is one aspect, but ensuring that, culturally, everyone understands the day-to-day obstacles Raquel faces, and that they work to minimise these, is ultimately the key to ensuring someone with a spinal cord injury can be fully integrated into the workforce. I can honestly say I forget Raquel is in a wheelchair - Raquel is defined by being the leader of our team and not by being someone who is paralysed. There are of course times when I have to stop and take stock over how we might do something, but it is now intrinsic in the way I think. For example, when booking train tickets to visit a client with Raquel, I immediately book wheelchair assistance and ensure the travel arrangements meet both her needs and mine.
When I first joined the firm, I would have thought that physically dealing with documents and carrying bundles of files would have been a major problem- especially at a law firm- but now that so much of our work is computer-based and paperless, combined with a wonderful support team, it actually is very rarely a problem.
Then there are the obligatory tea rounds; I would never have thought that Raquel could get involved with that sort of thing. The thought of someone in a wheelchair wheeling 5 cups of hot beverages around the office was a worrying image, but she is an avid tea and coffee drinker so makes endless cups. The point being, the culture of the firm is so adjusted now that there is always someone passing by and ready to help distribute.
Firm Ski trip to Bulgaria
Raquel enjoying a traditional Bulagrian meal in a Bulgarian house
It’s not just the workplace that can be conquered again following a Spinal Cord Injury- foreign travels can be equally intimidating but with a bit of planning and a lot of guts the world remains your oyster.
One colleague of ours in particular, Bruno Gil, a member of the Spinal Injury team tells us of his recent experience of going on a Bolt Burdon Kemp ski trip to Bulgaria, with Raquel. Here he tells us of the unexpected issues that can arise:
“Wheelchair accessible” - What does that mean to you?
If a restaurant has five iced-over stone steps up to the front door, is it accessible?
If the doorways are too narrow for a wheelchair to pass through, is it accessible?
If the bathroom has no handrails or shower cubicle, is it accessible?
If the bar is down a pot-holed, snowy street lined with hidden sewer grates, is it accessible?
As it turns out, the answer depends on where you are in the world. In a ski resort in Bulgaria, the answer to all of the above was ‘yes’. But the answer was not ‘yes’ because those with SCI in Bulgaria are super human, able to contend with any obstacle. It was ‘yes’ because the people answering the question have never had to consider the issue before. Unfortunately, the real answer was ‘not really’ – they simply didn’t know what they were talking about. To be fair to them, it is not often that a wheelchair user goes to Bulgaria for a skiing holiday!
Perhaps the best example of this misguided answer came from our hotel:
When booking the trip, we had been assured that they had wheelchair accessible rooms. It turned out that what they meant was that one can physically roll a wheelchair into the bedroom. As far as they were concerned, that was all that was required in order to earn the accolade of ‘accessible’, and perhaps one can see how this misunderstanding came around, but the honest truth is that once you were in the room, the ‘accessibility’ ended. The bathroom doorways were too narrow to pass through, there were no handrails and the layout of the room was very awkward to get a chair around. In almost no way was it wheelchair accessible. Thankfully, none of this was new to Raquel and she was ready to take control of the situation. In no time at all a member of staff had been summoned, the bathroom door had been taken off its hinges, the room rearranged and the fridge suitably stocked with chocolate.
Bolt Burdon Kemp staff warming up in a ski resort hut
Things were never really plain sailing in and around the resort. Ramps or street-level entries are not really ‘a thing’ where we were staying. Nor were accessible taxis, gritted pavements or power-assisted doors. Once you become tuned in to the obstacles and barriers to getting around in a wheelchair, it really becomes apparent how ill-equipped most places and most people are. It was a real eye-opener for me. However, none of it held Raquel back. With a drive to get stuck in, some careful directing, a bit of patience and some willing assistance from her colleagues, everything was pretty manageable. What of the less doable bits? Well, inevitably, they provided a good story at the end of it!
Loss of earnings and legal claims:
Many of our clients have voiced concerns that other solicitors have suggested that they do not try to return to work, as this could affect the loss of earnings aspect of their claim and reduce their overall compensation. For example, if someone was earning £30,000 pre accident and they are able to return part-time and earn, say, £14,000, then their ‘lost’ salary is £16,000 and this would be the amount that is recoverable within a claim. However, if someone did not return to work at all, their ‘lost’ earnings would be £30,000 and the head of loss would increase the overall amount being claimed as a part of the compensation, or at least it would on paper. This approach shows an unfortunate lack of awareness of the importance of improving the client’s quality of life and ensuring that they are fulfilled. Many clients, whilst recognising the ‘safety net’ that compensation can provide, would rather have their quality of life back and be returned to their pre-accident position, as best as possible.
Therefore, if our clients wish to do so, we always encourage and support a return to work. We see this as crucial and, whilst getting back into work can be daunting at first, it is ultimately rewarding in every sense of the word. At Bolt Burdon Kemp our team has firsthand experience of helping and endorsing people with a spinal cord injury to achieve this, whilst ensuring that any support or equipment required to facilitate this return to work, is claimed for within the compensation process.
Mariel Stringer-Fehlow and Bruno Gil work with Raquel Siganporia in the Spinal Injury team at Bolt Burdon Kemp.
If you or a loved one have suffered an injury as a result of someone else’s negligence or you are concerned about the treatment you have received, contact us free of charge and in confidence on 020 7288 4844 or at email@example.com for specialist legal advice. Alternatively, you can complete this form and one of the solicitors in the Spinal Injury team will contact you. You can find out more about the team here.