We are not all shiny sports cars!

28 March 2022

As we start the final week of Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month, Beth Colburn, Vice Chair of our Enable Network Group, explains about the daily challenges of living with Cerebral Palsy.

Cerebral Palsy (CP) is a condition resulting from brain damage, often at birth, that affects people differently and throughout their lives. Actions such as stepping up or down a curb or typing on a keyboard – things which most neurotypical people usually do without much thought – take immense effort for someone with CP, because, as Beth explains, “I am processing the movement command differently and creating new or using alternative neurological pathways”.

“It takes me twice as much energy to walk, since I have to physically think about putting one foot in front of the other and make a conscious effort to co-ordinate and move my limbs,” adds Beth, who is an integrated support engineer at Leonardo's UK helicopters facility in Yeovil.

A unique journey

Using the analogy of a car, Beth says most able-bodied people are on cruise control, with their automatic lights and wipers. “If neurological pathways are roads, without CP the car can take messages from A to B down the most direct and shortest route, over smooth terrain,” says Beth. “However, with CP, that road may be permanently or suddenly and temporally closed. If the route is permanently closed over time, diversion signs get deployed, taking messages via the scenic route. If the road is suddenly or temporally closed, you find yourself on an adventure looking for a new route.”

With this in mind, it’s critical that people who don’t have CP are patient in their own interactions with those who do have the condition. “Without automatic controls, cruise control or voice assistance, my journey is longer and my workload is higher. But, I will get there,” says Beth.

Fuel economy is an important factor too. Since people with CP expend considerably more energy than their non-CP counterparts doing like-for-like activities.

“Fuel saving is really important since the tank has limited capacity. Having so much more to think about is like traffic on the road; trying to speed up, you just waste fuel and you still get to your destination at the same time anyway. Every day, I’m trying to avoid the red light and making a choice between fuelling and washing the car…i.e. preparing and eating dinner or taking a shower, at the end of a long day. But, this doesn’t have to be the case.

“Think like a smart meter, where every decision you make has an impact. By being mindful of accessibility, removing barriers and working smarter, everyone can help save fuel and allow the car to go the distance it is capable of.”

CP in adulthood

Much of the support and research focus on Cerebral Palsy is related to children, as this is when it is diagnosed. However, these children become adults and their Cerebral Palsy doesn’t just disappear like the support. Consequently, adults like Beth are left uncertain of future mobility due to society barriers. – Something Beth is keen to address in her role as Vice Chair of Leonardo UK’s Enable Network Group, and through other pursuits she is involved with.

“In my early 20s was the first time I’d experienced able-bodied people believe in me more than I believed in myself. During the selection process for Flying Scholarships for Disabled People (FSDP), I found myself in a room full of other disabled adults, which allowed me to see that disability isn’t a barrier. Hearing other peoples’ stories restored my hope that I could be happy, with a family of my own,” explains Beth about her introduction to FSDP.

“My scholarship turned my life round, and opened up my career. If not for FSDP, I’d have given up on aviation a long time ago. I have a lot to thank them for. Without my scholarship, I don’t think I would have found the morale to pursue my chosen career.”

Building awareness and understanding

As part of the team leading the growing Enable Network Group, Beth is working hard to affect serious change at Leonardo in terms of people’s understanding of challenges impacting people with a disability, and ensuring all the company’s UK sites are fully accessible.

“Having low expectations and making assumptions of disabled people is totally unhelpful,” warns Beth. “Enable is seeking to be involved in all major consultations affecting our members. After all, just as a book about men wouldn’t be written by only women with a single viewpoint, decisions should not be made by only able-bodied people on behalf of disabled people.

“The human brain is powerful. We have the ability to adapt and we overcome. CP doesn’t stop us, attitudes do! Belief, support and encouragement go a long way. Just like for a football team and fans, together we can achieve new heights, boost performance and morale. 

“Alone, challenging perceptions and creating inclusion is exhausting. But having allies will help remove the barriers that force us to fight every day. If you’re not sure, ask. Don’t withhold opportunities or treat us differently through fear of the unknown or a misconception. Give disabled people the benefit of your own doubt. Believe in us and be inclusive, you really can make a difference and change someone’s life,” adds Beth, passionately.