Tag Archives: acquired disability

Natasha Coates, the gymnast who is allergic to exercise

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This story is part of 30 Under 30.

 

Natasha Coates is an elite disability gymnast. She has a condition called Mast Cell Activation Disorder (MCAD). It means that she is allergic to a long list of different things, including exercise.

For 30 Under 30, she talks about disability sport and how she manages her condition whilst doing gymnastics.

I started gymnastics when I was eight at my local leisure centre.

When I was 18 I suffered a life threatening allergic reaction. I went into anaphylactic shock completely out of the blue and we didn’t know what had triggered it. Then it happened eight times in two weeks and it’s pretty much not stopped since. I’ve probably had over 250 life threatening allergic reactions since then.

I’d been doing gymnastics for a long time and I switched to disability gymnastics at 19 because I was unable to keep up with mainstream gymnastics. Disability gymnastics gives me the opportunity to still train and compete safely.

It was difficult to go from being perfectly fine one day to having this condition the next. It happened pretty much overnight. I found it difficult to refer to myself as disabled, I didn’t really know what it meant. Doing disability sport really made me realise who I was and what I wanted to do with my life.

Natasha, a young disabled woman, lies in a hospital bed holding her thumb up and smiling

Adjusting to train

I’ve made a lot of adjustments to my training because of my condition. I can’t train nearly as much as I used to. I maybe do six or seven hours a week. Most gymnasts do 30.

So when I exercise I lose the feeling from my elbows down and knees down which makes it difficult to feel the equipment. So when I’m on bars I can’t actually feel my hands catching the higher bar, I can only feel the drag down if I’ve caught it. So it creates quite a few barriers, especially whilst doing gymnastics!

I’m incredibly hard on myself and sometimes I do think I can do everything like everybody else because I train with mainstream athletes so I try to keep up with them. I get frustrated when I can’t.

Natasha, a young disabled woman, leaps into the air during a gymnastics performance
Photo courtesy of B C Gym Photos

The British Championships

When I competed this year I was waving at the crowd, showing everyone what I could do. I placed first on floor and I’d only started tumbling a few days before. I’d just got out of intensive care 12 weeks before that.

I came off the floor and just burst into tears. My best friend is my coach as well and she knew the lyrics to the song I’d chosen and what it represented and we were literally just sobbing into each others’ arms.

I’m not aware of the crowd when I’m performing because I’m so focused, but when I did the end I could hear the audience. I presented to everyone and people came up afterwards saying my floor was amazing and it was really nice to see the emotion. After all the work and effort that I’d put into that floor routine it was really nice for them to feel it as well.

Making way for the next generation

I’d love gymnastics to be in the Paralympics and to say I was going to Rio but unfortunately it’s unlikely to happen in my career. There’s just not enough of us and there’s not enough international squads. Hopefully it will get there. I’d love to see it in my lifetime. I feel like the more I raise awareness of disability gymnastics, the more I can pave the way for the next generation.

I’d recommend anyone to try disability sport. You don’t have to be representing Great Britain, you don’t have to be good at it – if you’re enjoying it that’s all that matters.

Natasha, a young disabled woman, flips upside down during a gymnastics competition
Photo courtesy of B C Gym Photos

Natasha joins us for a Facebook Live session at 4pm on Friday 24 June.

She is sharing her story as part of 30 Under 30. We are releasing one story a day throughout June from disabled people under 30 who are doing extraordinary things. Keep up to date with all of our new stories on our 30 under 30 page.

To find out more about Disability Gymnastics and how to get involved, visit the British Gymnastics website.

Header image courtesy of Alan Edwards

20 poems for 20 years: my experience as a wheelchair user

When Stephen was 16, he had a sledging accident that left him paralysed from the waist down. That was 20 years ago, so to mark the anniversary, he’s written 20 poems telling his story. They reflect on his experience as a wheelchair user, and how he finds society’s attitudes towards disabled people. 

Having worked on this project for the past couple of years I hadn’t really appreciated how intensely personal the subject matter was. For some people, colleagues, friends and even family, this was the first time I had really outwardly articulated what was in my head.

Being viewed differently by society

The poems covered everything from my accident, to recovering in hospital, getting to know my wheelchair and how I now feel 20 years on. As I started to write and the poems began to come together, I realised I was also writing about how it feels to have a disability and how that changes the way you are viewed by society.Stephen smiling wearing sunglasses as the sun sets

So I was pretty nervous when I came to post my first poem via social media. I used Lego figures to visually represent what I penned in poem form, because let’s be honest you are never too old for Lego!

My reasons for doing this were not so much about the anniversary itself but more about my reflections on spending my adult life as a wheelchair user. Not for a moment do I regret my accident. Life is simply too short. I’m very proud of who I am and what I’ve achieved but life isn’t and hasn’t been without its challenges. Naturally some of these challenges have been down to adapting to a new life with a physical disability but some have also been about my frustrations at being given a label and having to deal with the way disability is viewed in today’s society.

An emotional journey

Whilst all of my poems provoked some sort of emotion internally when I wrote them, it was the ones about discrimination that caused the strongest reaction. One of my poems is called The Acceptable Discrimination, and this is about the fact that in many situations it seems okay that there are barriers that stop disabled people from just being able to lead a normal life.

I live in London and whilst it’s a wonderful, thriving and vibrant city, it can also be incredibly frustrating. Every day things are made difficult or impossible just because it’s not set up to cope with disabled people. The easiest example of this is the sheer number of public buildings, shops and amenities that are no go areas due to steps.

Public transport is also nothing short of a national disgrace. The fact that large parts of the London underground are without lifts and level Stephen, in his wheelchair at the top of a skateboard ramp, with graffiti in the backgroundaccess to the trains is staggering to me. It’s also virtually impossible to travel on any overground train without assistance. We’re told this is because some stations are old or that trains are too high, yet in Scandinavia I’ve travelled on trains independently where every fourth carriage is lowered to the level of the platform. It really isn’t that hard.

Attitudes towards disabled people

I honestly believe that most of this is down to attitudes. We still live in a society where many people don’t think twice about using a disabled toilet, parking in a disabled parking bay or in front of a drop-down curb. Nobody would entertain using a loo for a different gender so why should a disabled toilet be any different? Just as frustratingly there isn’t a day goes by where I’m not asked if I need help, or being randomly congratulated for doing simple things such as living on my own, having a job or going on holiday.

Changing the way people see disability

The reaction to the poems has been brilliant and I’ve been overwhelmed by the comments I’ve had. What has struck me the most has been that some people have said they have challenged the way they think about disability. For me this is the biggest compliment I could receive.

I’d love nothing more than if we just looked at the person rather than seeing their physical appearance, race, age and gender first. We’re all the same really and we all have the potential to be brilliant. 

Here are two of my poems that I hope you will enjoy:

The arranged marriage

The first time we met I didn’t want you.

A lego man lying in a bed, with a wheelchair and a set of drawers next to himI didn’t want to even acknowledge your existence.

I had no choice but to take you and I resented you for that.

You were confident, brash, everything I wasn’t.

But in your own way you needed me.

There were others waiting to take you.

But you and I were brought together.

We had to make it work.

The first time was awkward,

I didn’t know where to put my hands.

Fumbled across the room.

You were patient, you made me take it gently.

And the first time we went out,

It was awful.

I cried hot, childlike tears.

I felt everyone was staring, judging us.

But you didn’t care.

You waited, patiently till I was ready.

And we haven’t looked back.

20 years

Man and chair.

The acceptable discrimination

I am denied entry because of who I am.

Hairdressers, restaurants, theatres and gyms.

A lego figure in a wheelchair, at the bottom of some stairs. At the top of the stairs is a lego waiter offering a glass of wineMany seemingly a step too far.

Unable to travel where I want on public transport.

Those special parts of the city forever out of reach.

That is until someone decides to give me a lift.

Not able to live or work where I choose.

Having to ask for help when all I want is just to blend in.

Made to feel like a second class citizen in a first class world.

This is the discrimination I face every day,

for physically being different.

But I am the same.

I commute, I work, I pay my dues.

I’m tired from the effort, this city, of it just being ok.

Tired of the fact it happens and is somehow tolerated.

Tolerated and ignored by those with the power to make a difference.

But it’s actually their indifference,

that makes it acceptable to turn the other way.

Have you got a similar experience of becoming disabled later in life? Have you found that attitudes towards you have changed?

You can read the rest of Stephen’s poems on Storify or his website, and follow him on Instagram and Twitter.