Today the Supreme court ruled against right to die campaigners Paul Lamb and Jane Nicklinson in their latest attempt to change the current laws on assisted suicide, and I must admit I am relieved. I know that might sound heartless, and there are many voices who cry about their suffering and choice, but a recent stay in hospital made me realise that there is a wider issue behind the assisted suicide debate.
In the space of a month I came into contact with several disabled people, most having experienced spinal injury, and I was stunned at the terrible state of their mental health. Other than the wheelchair using psychologist who came to see me during my stay, who I really wished had been working when I became a wheelchair user as she was amazing, every other disabled person I met was deep in the throws of depression. It soon became clear that they were still grieving for their lost abilities and for the body they once had. I understand these feelings as I also went through them when I became a wheelchair user at the tender age of fifteen, but with help and emotional support from family and friends, plus assistance from the NHS and the welfare state, I threw off that depression and went on to build a happy and successful life. In fact I now feel that becoming a wheelchair user was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
From the the beginning of my hospital stay I found the mind set of my ward mates upsetting. The first person I spoke to challenged me about why I was so happy as a wheelchair user and decried my positivity as I obviously had no idea what it is was like to "cry alone on New Year's Eve... again". He had been disabled for over 50 years. Another, who had broken his spine over 20 years ago, was less down but still was deeply troubled by how much me missed being able to play football. He had never tried any disability sports as he felt they would only remind him of what he couldn't do. The one that upset me the most claimed he prayed his surgery went wrong and killed him as he was so fed up with his life as a disabled person he wanted to die.
Shockingly during my hospital stay while I was seen by a psychologist, my ward mates were not, yet to me they were most in need of support. I found myself being met with a sea of "compliments" about how well adjusted I was, and what a positive mental attitude I had towards being disabled. Those who were depressed were treated as if that is how you are if disability or sickness is part of your life. I was the aberration, they were a normal reaction to disability it seemed. This is an element of the way society considers disability, and is also at the root of why these disabled people were depressed. It is the only reaction to their situation and there is no real way of creating a positive happy out look once you have an impairment. No, once you're disabled you can never look on the bright side of life.
I must also say that I fully understand what it is like to live with pain and discomfort associated with disability. I am in constant chronic pain that medication can only touch not stop, and have loads of other stuff that goes with spinal injury, like spasms and reduced bone density that causes my bones to break and wear away. I could list the other bits that don't work or that hurt but I don't want to bore you. I am not trying to gain sympathy, I just want to ensure it is clear I know that impairment is not a bed of roses. I also truly understand being depressed. In fact when I was sixteen and had been in my chair less than a year I was so down I planned to kill myself. I had everything in place ready and was only minutes away from carrying out the deed but the thought of my mother finding my body stopped me. Everything I am, and the amazing life I have led, would have finished there without anyone even knowing what my future held if I had been able to ask some one to assist me to die.
With the closure of the Independent Living Fund meaning so many more severely disabled people are facing a grim future and government cuts shrinking services for disabled people I worry that this clamour for assisted suicide is not driven by darker motives. I truly wish that the discussion would move away from the cry for assisted suicide to that of assisted life. Also like Lenny Henry's recent cry for more BME talent in our media, I want to see more positive disabled role models. I hope that one day if some one becomes disabled they do not consider it to be the end of their life but a transition to a new way of living, one that can lead to a life that is not only as good as it was prior to their illness or injury but to one that could be better. It might sound over simplistic, but to me it is that simple. If we could ensure that the majority of sick and disabled people were given the chance to be happy, independent and fulfilled then we could then focus on those who were struggling and help them, whatever that help entailed. As it stands we seem to be focusing on putting people down without ensuring we do everything to keep them alive. Alive and fulfilled.