Changes: Sophie Morgan
The audio version of this episode is available here.
Annie [00:00:03] Hello and welcome to Changes. It's Annie Macmanus here. Hello there, it's so good to have you back and to be able to bring you another conversation about life changing events. This week, our guest is TV presenter Sophie Morgan. At the age of 18, just about to start her adult life, Sophie was in a car crash and was instantly paralysed from the chest down. She was told she would never walk again. Now Sophie is one of the first and only female disabled television hosts in the world, as well as an award winning disability advocate. She has presented at the Paralympics in London, Rio and most recently Tokyo in 2020, has led groundbreaking documentaries such as Dispatches and Unreported World, is a regular Loose Women panellist and is now hosting her own prime-time Channel Four series, Living Wild: How to Change Your Life. If you love this podcast, you will love that TV show. It's all about people who do drastic changes in their lives. Also, Sophie's memoir Driving Forwards is out now in paperback and is a remarkable read. Sophie is incredibly resilient, and in this conversation she tells us about the day everything changed. Talking us through her life before and after the crash and how she adapted to being in the world as a disabled person. What I found the most amazing thing about Sophie is her positivity and this endless drive that she has. She is an unstoppable force. If all of us could face adversity with the fearlessness and even half of the determination that Sophie possesses, we would be winning. You will leave this conversation ready to take on the world. Welcome to Changes, Sophie Morgan... Sophie Morgan, welcome to Changes!
Sophie [00:01:59] Annie Mac, hi! I'm so excited. Ohhh, Annie this is such a privilege.
Annie [00:02:02] *Laughs* It's so nice to meet you. How are ya?
Sophie [00:02:06] I'm really well. I'm really well. How are you?
Annie [00:02:08] Yeah, good actually. It's great to be chatting with you. I've been, like, so engrossed in your book. You are one of the only female TV presenters with a physical disability, like, not just in the UK but globally. What have you learned about public perceptions of differently abled people since you've been on television?
Sophie [00:02:29] Wow. A lot, I think. I mean, so I suppose I should start at the beginning and say the first thing I ever learnt about people's attitudes towards disability when I was first on telly was when I, I had been injured for about maybe six or seven months, not long. And I'd been approached by the BBC because they were casting for a new reality show called Beyond Boundaries, where they were going to be taking a group of disabled people- pan disability so a wide range of physical, sensory impairments, all sorts. And we would be going on an expedition from one side of Nicaragua to the other side of Nicaragua, on foot, right. I got the gig to go and I was like, brilliant, I'm going to use this platform to show people about disability. Because I had learnt so much myself, I'd only been injured about, as I said, not long, and I had been on this steep learning curve of what disability means. It was such a whole new world I'd come into and so I was fascinated to see the response to that, and that's when I started to realise that, people's attitudes, I suppose a little bit like the attitudes I had had not long before, when I was younger and I wasn't a disabled person, they were pretty outdated, pretty limited. At best I'd say slightly ignorant, at worst I'd say outright damaging.
Annie [00:03:50] Right.
Sophie [00:03:52] At that time certainly- that was 20 years ago almost, we hadn't seen disability on screen. We hadn't. It was very new and it was a privilege to be a part of that conversation as it started to kind of hit the mainstream. But I mean, it's it's taken a long time. It wasn't until you fast forward to things like the Paralympics, which was what, 2012?
Annie [00:04:10] Yeah.
Sophie [00:04:10] You know a long time after when I did that, that was 2004. So that's when we started to see the conversation start to become more nuanced, more accurate, more authentic. And we're still working towards it. You know, we're still trying to get there. So it's definitely improved over the years. I think television is a great tool for changing attitudes. In fact, in my opinion, it's the greatest. Or it's certainly the greatest tool I have for changing people's perceptions, but there's a lot of work to be done.
Annie [00:04:36] Yeah. I want to speak to you about the Paralympics further into the conversation, but let's talk about change, which is what this podcast is rooted in. You know, you are an advocate for change, changing people's perceptions. What is your relationship, your personal relationship with that word?
Sophie [00:04:52] It's quite easy to sort of assume everyone has the same attitude to change. It's quite a naive thing to say perhaps but I love change. I seek it out. I lean into it in such an active way that I get quite shocked when people go, 'oh no, I'm scared of change!'. I'm like, oh! Really? Why? So to answer your question, I do, I love change. There's two reasons. The first reason I love change is because when the unexpected does happen to you, when change does come around, and it's the type of change that for you is possibly the worst type of change imaginable- To give context to that, to anyone who doesn't know what happened to me, I was paralysed in a car crash when I was 18 years old, and so I had that whole conversation around, you know, you're never going to walk again and then had to have all that- unpack all of what that meant. And when that happened, you might assume that would be the worst kind of change imaginable for a young girl. When I came to realise that that change actually brought around a huge amount of positivity for me and an opportunity and a shift in perspective in the right way, and that I gained a lot from that change, as bad as it might appear, I realised then that actually, wow, what's the worst that can happen? You know, change is such an interesting place to grow and why not seek it out? And then I think the second layer to why I love change is because I live with so many limitations as to what I can do as a physically disabled person. If there are things that are possible for me to do, if there are changes that I can make, if there's opportunity out there and I let my fear get in the way of it, if my fear is the only thing for holding me back, then I'm doubly paralysed. I'm doubly disabled, if that makes sense.
Annie [00:06:38] It does, yeah.
Sophie [00:06:39] I'm like, right, okay, if there's my disability getting in the way that's one thing. I can't change that. But then if I get in my own way and don't seek out the newness, the opportunity, the change, I'm stopping my life even more. So I almost go, right, ooh, hold on a minute I'm scared of something. What am I scared of here? And if I'm scared of it, I go right, you've got to lean into it. And I think that's made me really open to change in all its forms.
Annie [00:07:05] You, in your book Driving Forwards, you describe yourself as free spirited, filthy, ravenous, rebellious, an incorrigible wild child. You say in the book that it felt like there was a before and after. So tell me about Sophie Morgan before the accident. What were you like? What are your memories, I suppose, of your young childhood?
Sophie [00:07:24] They were really wonderful memories. I cherish them. Like, I can't even describe to you how much they mean to me, those memories of my first 18 years of my life, which were spent walking, and not just walking as you described, like I was-
Annie [00:07:43] Running, sprinting *laughs*.
Sophie [00:07:44] Running, I was just *laughs* I was all over the shop. I was a really active person, so- okay so I mean in terms of where I grew up, I grew up in the countryside. I grew up in the forest, actually, in Ashdown Forest. People know it because it's where A.A. Milne based the story of Winnie the Pooh. So I was really outdoorsy. My mum had a lot of animals when we were little, we had lots of dogs and all sorts and I loved them. They were my best, best pals. So I kind of- I thought I was a bit of an animal. I think that's why I describe myself as slightly ravenous and filthy, because I was always out in the mud, in the dirt, and playing with my brother in the woods. And so that was the formative years. And then I hit my teenage years and I did go a little bit off pist. I went a bit- I rebelled quite hard for for me, certainly. I went from being quite a sweet kid to being quite a difficult kid. And I hit my teens and just kind of decided that I wanted to try everything. I was like, right I want it all! *Annie laughs* I can't get enough. And I just went into, you know, all of the things that a lot of teenagers do. I got really stuck into drinking and music, boys, fun. I just was like, give it to me, give it to me. And then obviously in the meantime I had to manage school. So I was like ahh, you know, I was like, constantly a little bit on edge because I wanted to be free, thats all I write about in my diary. So I wanted to be free, whatever that meant. And I basically, I got kicked out of the school that I was in. I think the main reason was cause I was buying alcohol for everybody, because I was that kid that was the bigger kid, so I didn't get ID'd. Anyway, so then I ended up going up to Scotland actually, my mum's Scottish and I was in- I just kept getting in trouble and she was like, I think you need to go away. You need to just be gone, go and sort yourself out. And the school that I went to was kind of renowned for being an outdoorsy school and I think she thought, oh you'll really benefit from that. So off I went to Scotland and I did get stuck into the outdoor world and really like benefit from that. I thrived up there, but I still was not behaving particularly well. But yeah, got through by the skin of my teeth. Got through, got my exam results and actually that was the day that I was paralysed, was the day I got my exam results. So I kind of made it through, got all the way to the end and err, and then yeah, everything changed.
[00:10:06] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:10:16] Can you talk us through the day? How has your perception of the day changed? Do you feel like it's kind of been told so much that it's kind of polished into something that is unreal, nearly?
Sophie [00:10:26] I think so. And I would say a lot of people who have been through trauma probably, if they talk about it enough, it does, doesn't it? It kind of becomes that, oh there's A B C D, it's just a story now. And in fact I've come to realise actually, since writing my book about what happened and then also subsequently going into some therapy about it, that actually it wasn't the biggest trauma in my life, weirdly, that there's been things that have happened since that have been, you know, weirdly harder for me. So it was actually- it's not that painful, because a lot of it I don't really remember. I do remember the day like it was yesterday. I was with my mum. We had this conversation Annie, which... well I'll never forget. I was getting dressed for a party that we were going to to celebrate the end of school. And she stood next to me in the mirror and she's like, God, you're all grown up. You know, Sophie, shit, you've made it. You're an adult now and this is the next chapter of your life. I'm so excited for you. And we had this conversation. And then she dropped me at the train station, and I went up to Scotland where I was going to go and get the results. And I remember waving goodbye to her and I was really like, byeee! *Annie laughs*. Fucking can't wait, off I go. And she was like- I think she was happy to see me go. You know, she'd done her job.
Annie [00:11:40] Yeah.
Sophie [00:11:41] She got me to that point. She got me through by the skin of my teeth as I said. And that day was amazing. It was just a really hot summer's day because it's August. It's that time when all the kids are getting their results, you know, the energy in the summer is just palpable. Everyone's buzzing. And I'd had an amazing summer as well. I'd travelled for the first time, like, properly travelled. I went to stay with my friend in India.
Annie [00:12:04] Wow.
Sophie [00:12:04] And I was like, the world is out there! I'm about to get it!
Annie [00:12:07] Yeah.
Sophie [00:12:09] Literally, I don't think you could have stopped me if you tried. I was on one.
Annie [00:12:11] Yeah.
Sophie [00:12:11] So I go up there and I meet my friends, my boyfriend at the time and my friends, and we were all piling into my boyfriend's dad's car he'd lent me. I'd got my license. I'd had it for about six months. Thought I knew everything, obviously. And I got in this car with my friends and we drove to this party. I got the A-level results that I needed to get to law school, really, was my plan. And everything was amazing. I was on the precipice, Annie. I was on that precipice of-
Annie [00:12:43] Literally on the edge.
Sophie [00:12:45] On the edge.
Annie [00:12:45] Yeah. Of adulthood.
Sophie [00:12:47] That's it. And of life, like, girlhood done. Adulthood ahead. I just felt so excited about what was next. And then we finished the party, and because I hadn't been drinking I was like, I'll just drive. Let's go home. Because we were going to go onto an after party. So I got in the car, all the friends piled back into the car, same friends. I put my seatbelt on and I drove off down the road and it's a really quiet country road in the highlands of Scotland. Again, it's seared into my memory. It's not very well lit, and it was close to about 3:00 in the morning, and I drove maybe less than a mile to get to this next house where we were going to have our afterparty. And in that journey I was speeding. I was excited. Everyone in the car was, you know, pissed and singing and, I still don't know what the song that we were listening to was but I have a feeling it was The Light by Common, because there's always that- I have a funny relationship with that song, and I think it's because it's from that moment. But suddenly, basically I lost control of my car. There was no other car on the road. I was driving too fast. I lost control and I oversteered. I'd never driven a car with power steering before. I had a 102, a Peugeot 102 that was like, literally just --- that's what I'd I learnt to drive in. And anyway, the circumstances were just perfect, perfect storm for a terrible car crash. Everything was going wrong and I just lost control of my car, spun it and I hit the side of the road and in that moment, the car, the tyre burst I think. And then the car just flipped into the field and rolled and rolled and rolled and rolled. Crashed. And I was instantly paralysed from the chest down. Where the seatbelt crosses over you. In that point where it hits your chest right in the middle. Where it hits your spine I should say. I twisted and the top of me didn't because seatbelt held me. This is what they suspect happened.
Annie [00:14:42] *Surprised* okay.
Sophie [00:14:43] And then, boom, the spine just went juh-juh. In a split second it just twisted. And that was enough to do the damage that sent scar tissue instantly into the area where the spine- the vertebrae had moved. And that caused a block. And that block cannot be removed.
Annie [00:15:00] Yeah. So everyone else was okay. It's important to say.
Sophie [00:15:05] Yeah, everyone else was okay, yeah.
Annie [00:15:07] Yeah, yeah. You then are brought to hospital. What is your memory, I suppose, of the first time you were able to process what actually happened?
Sophie [00:15:21] It was a weird awakening in many ways. I've been asked by several people over the years, what was it like at that moment when somebody told you you're never going to walk again? But for me, it wasn't like that. So what had happened in the crash is I had suffered a lot of damage on my face. So my face had been smashed into the window on the right hand side, the driver's side, and in that impact, I mean, without going into gory details, a lot of damage had been done. And so my focus when I first woke up in intensive care was actually on the pain in my face. And my jaw had been wired shut. So the pain was so focused and so centralised in my eye and my face that I didn't have the capacity to think about anything else. So for a long time I was focused on this pain and as I was regaining consciousness and started slowly kind of coming round, I basically, my lungs filled up with fluid and I was technically pronounced dead for a bit. And I had an extraordinary like, near-death experience, which I love telling because it's wild-
Annie [00:16:30] It is wild.
Sophie [00:16:31] But I kind of went in towards the light.
Annie [00:16:31] Yeah, and you heard a voice right?
Sophie [00:16:35] I had a voice and it was my mum's voice and she was saying, don't go, don't go. And she wasn't even in the room at this time. I asked her afterwards and pieced it all together and I had this amazing experience where I went away and I was about to go and then this voice said, don't go, don't go, please come back, come back. And I was like, okay, I'll come back. And I did, obviously. And I love that story because it makes me believe in something else afterwards and I don't know what it is, but it's nice. But then I also basically, as I started to recover, nurses would come in and they'd be doing stuff to my body and I started to realise, oh, I think they're washing me, I think they're moving me. But I had no idea what they were doing. And that's when I started to realise, oh shit, something bad's happened, something really bad's happened. And then I was piecing together, you know, you're in a spinal unit. What the fuck is a spinal unit? All of this was coming at me and the clues were being knitted together. And eventually I realised, oh what have you done, Sophie? What have you done this time, you absolute idiot. And that's when eventually then I was told what had happened. So it was kind of like I knew- I mean, it's your own body, you know when something's wrong with it. But the extent of the damage I'd done, I didn't know fully for months to come because that would take time to really kind of work out. And it was terrifying. Absolutely terrifying. But at the same time, I have to say it was weird because what happened was I didn't focus on all the things I couldn't do. I was so pissed off with myself that I had done this, that I'd interrupted my moment of freedom that I was like, you dick what have you done! What have you done to yourself? You've you've stopped yourself. Shit, what are you going to do? All I could do at that time was go, to anyone that would listen, you know, the occupational therapists and the physios and all of those wonderful people that were in the spinal unit. I was like right, what can I do? What can I still do? Can I get in a car? Can I drive?
Annie [00:18:41] Yeah.
Sophie [00:18:41] Can I get in a chair? Can I get in a bath? What can I do? Because you have to learn everything again from dressing yourself, to how to go to the loo, to how to manage your body because two thirds of it now you can't feel or move. So there's a huge amount of complications there that you have to manage. So it was very much a case of like, very early on, what can I do? Not what can't I do. So I didn't focus on that, which I think was really helpful.
Annie [00:19:04] It's important to say that you were very determined to learn the hardest parts of everything that you had to do. You wanted to assume that wherever you were going to be in your life wasn't going to be equipped or accessible for your needs. So you wanted to be able to get yourself from a wheelchair to a toilet that is an average toilet, you know.
Sophie [00:19:24] Exactly.
Annie [00:19:25] Or get yourself out of a bath. To not have to need all of the accessibility things that would have helped you considerably in the process of learning these new movements.
Sophie [00:19:36] And looking back on it, I think that's kind of sad, isn't it, that I realised that the world was not going to be adapted to me, so I would have to adapt. And at first I got that. I had the resilience in me. I had the tenacity and all of those things that I needed to get me through it. And I was like, yeah, no, teach me how to live in a world that's not actually designed for me. Teach me how to be disabled in a non-disabled world, you know?
Annie [00:20:03] Yeah.
Sophie [00:20:04] But I've made it my life's work now to actually make the world suitable for people like me and say, why should we have to adapt so much? It's really hard. And at times it's actually impossible. So that's that kind of shift in perspective that I have. I think it's quite an ableist- I've come to learn that term.
Annie [00:20:24] I mean, yeah, totally that. But I think it's also just innocence and your blind optimism at the time. You're picturing your friends houses. You're like, I'm going to need to be in that house, so if I'm going to be in that house-
Sophie [00:20:35] I need to be able to manage.
Annie [00:20:39] Yeah, it's you being quite pragmatic, actually.
Sophie [00:20:40] Oh, I'm glad you put it that way. It's a nice way of putting it. I do beat myself up a bit about that time because I did a lot of damage to myself, unfortunately. So you're right. All that mattered to me was, I want to keep up with my friends. They're on one. They're about to go to uni. They're about to go, you know, do that life that we've been dreaming of. We've been talking about it for so long, you know, ohh what's it going to be like that moment we go to a house party and there's no parents around and we're at uni and- that feeling to us was so- I still feel it now, thinking about that like. And I was like, I was robbed! I was robbed! And I was like, no, I'm not. I'm going to get there. And I was determined to keep up with them and, you know, thankfully I had this group of friends, fresh from school, who were there to piggyback me into raves and put me on speakers and like, help me and get me there and that was my learning. That time was so difficult because I wanted to keep up in a world that was just so wild. It wasn't like I was going back into an office job or something where it was all quite- Everyone was nuts, everyone was travelling and trying to go places and I was like, take me with you, don't leave me. And so I did and so you're right. So it was all about, how do I go to the loo in a student house? How do I go to a house party? House parties, Annie. House parties in a wheelchair. Are you mad? It was like, no, you can't get in the front door, let alone have fun and- And then also, obviously young students attitudes, you know, my peers, we hadn't been exposed to a lot of the world. We were still kids. We hadn't seen a lot of disability. We hadn't been in that environment. So, you know, thankfully people were kind and welcoming, but also everyone was like, what are you doing? *Annie laughs*. And as I said, I did a bit of damage. You know, I did damage myself.
Annie [00:22:24] What, in that time?
Sophie [00:22:25] Yeah, physically I did because I just didn't look after myself because I wanted desperately to keep up, and actually the reality is, if you've got a spinal injury, you can't be up three days in a row and party all night. You can, you can, but there will be a consequence to it. And I burnt the candle at both ends. You know, I really wanted to keep up and go, go, go. And that was in my nature so it was, it was challenging.
[00:22:50] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:23:00] Your friends in the book just, they feel like such an integral part to your mental health in terms of coming through this and coming out the other side. And there's a moment where your friend, is it Boner which *both laughing*.
Sophie [00:23:14] *Laughing* yeah, Boner.
Annie [00:23:17] Is it Boner who brings you to the shopping centre for the first time?
Sophie [00:23:20] Yeah.
Annie [00:23:20] So there's this description that you said of then. 'People moving away from you like pigeons from a dock' in the shopping centre. Can you help people to like, understand what that was like? Going out to the public for the first time and really seeing in this very kind of raw way, people's reactions to you.
Sophie [00:23:41] That moment. Ahhh, Boner, God I love her. So this is my best pal at the time. I had been let out of hospital and try and imagine this little 18 year old thing. I was so scrawny and like, covered in bruises and I didn't know my identity anymore. I certainly wasn't the girl I was before who would just walk around like she owned the place. I was now this little, meek little tiny thing in this wheelchair and my mate Boner- Antonia is her name but her nickname was Boner, we went to this shopping centre and we chose the shopping centre because it would be flat. It was an assault, is the only way I could describe it, I think, is an assault on all of my senses. I couldn't believe the reactions that I was facing. And I really wanted to paint this picture in the book Annie because I think, there's sometimes people really assume that the biggest barriers we face are the obvious ones like lack of access, no ramps, no, you know, steps or or gravel. But actually, I soon realised that the biggest barriers that I would be facing would be people, attitudes. And so off I go into this shopping centre and I got a full range of reactions, whether it be from young kids pointing and staring, which I have no problem with by the way, I think that's really innocent and sweet, but pointing and staring but their parents grabbing them, 'get out of her way! Sorry, love' you know, apologising that their children exist and that their children are curious. And that I was sort of almost like a freak show. I was like ooh no, that's okay. But Boner's pushing me and we're kind of rushing through this crowd. And every encounter had its own unique sort of almost ableism entangled in it. So the next one would be young girls kind of almost feeling sorry for me. I remember there were two two teenage girls that couldn't have been that much different in age to me and Bone and I remember them looking at me going, God, that's just so sad. And I was like oh God, people feel sorry for me. Oh, shit. And then there was an old man kind of laughing about the fact that he was going to be in a wheelchair at some point. I was like, shit, now I'm like an old person. And then all the while there were all these people sort of scattering from me. Kind of getting out of my way. And I remember just thinking, oh my God, what is this life going to be, that I'm so different? And my lived experience of being a young woman that would walk into a room, and I didn't turn heads or anything, but I certainly didn't get people looking away in fear or disgust or embarrassment or something. But now I was like, I was either invisible or the centre of attention, and it was absolutely terrifying. I was so grateful for my friend. I was just like, Boner, you can't leave me. You literally can't leave me. You're like my armour, man. I need you. Because she was my pal as well. She also saw me as me still, and I needed that lens, you know, I needed someone to say, you're still you in there. It's cool, we got you. And that's why I hung on to my friends for dear life. They were like a lifeline. And I was like, I don't think I can do this and she was like, of course you bloody can, you'll be fine. She was so like that with me and I needed that too. Then I got older and I started to accept the situation that I was in and started to find my identity without them and work out who I was. And then I get to an older age and I realised that one of the things that had happened is that I had tried so hard to make my pals not see me as disabled. Like, I'm no different to you. I'm the same. I can keep up. Don't let me go. Don't leave me behind. I'm here too. That actually I realised that, in not letting them see my disability, my disability was not being understood. I became more proud of my disability and I became more, this is actually part of my identity and actually this is who I am, and if you can't see it, then you can't see me. And I started to realise some of the things that I needed in friendships that were different when I was younger. And so those friendships that got me through then slowly changed and new friendships came along that were as important as friendships always are. I needed my disability to be recognised. I wanted my friends not to drag me into clubs that were inaccessible, but to ring ahead and say, are you accessible? And check for me.
Annie [00:27:52] And if not, why not? Yeah.
Sophie [00:27:56] Right, yeah. But at first I was like, I'm not going to get in your way. I don't want my lived experience to impact yours. I'm not going to disable you. But now I'm like, no, I want my friends to understand this way of living and help me in it and support me with it because it's such a great life I live and I love the perspective I've got and I want to share it.
[00:28:15] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:28:24] So, you go home to your house, your gorgeous house which sounds like this idyllic place in the middle of this forest, really cosy and home and your family are all there. And you realise when you get there that this is just the absolute most inaccessible place for you. You had no agency, you had no control because it wasn't accessible and it was a very sad moment. And I really get that and frustrating because you just want to do your own thing. You want to be able to help out around the house and all of that. What happened next?
Sophie [00:28:54] They did adapt the house, Annie, but not as you think. It was an old house. And actually those adaptations took a longggg time. So I was bumping up and down the stairs on my bum for the first- I think Mum was helping me get up and down the stairs on my bum for like six months or something until we could get a stairlift put in. One of those old, you know, granny stairlifts.
Annie [00:29:15] Yeah.
Sophie [00:29:16] So I came out of hospital and I lived with them for about a year, just getting my shit together. As I mentioned earlier, I planned to go to law school and I quickly scrapped that. I was like, no, I want to do what I love and I love making art. I always did.
Annie [00:29:29] But isn't that amazing? Because you would have had to go through four years of law school, and then realise.
Sophie [00:29:34] Yess! That's what I'm saying. There's the unexpected benefits of all of the things that happened, like right, I know. This is why I look back on it and I'm like, this wasn't the worst thing that could have happened. These amazing things came from it. So I went to art school, but I encountered my first block. College were like, nope, you can't come. And me and my mom were like, what?And they were like, no, it's not accessible. You can't come. So that was the first time I realised, oh, hold on a minute, I've got a fight on my hands. My life is going to be an ongoing battle and I need to quickly know my rights. I need to know where the laws at. So I got a lawyer and they helped me fight that under the Disability Discrimination Act, as it was then. The college got changed and a disabled toilet got put in and I got to go to college and that was all cool. And then I went to Goldsmiths to go to uni and do fine art at Goldsmiths. And actually that's when I left home and I moved to London. But I spent a year in Brighton doing my foundation which was a baptism of fire as you can imagine. Brighton as a student, it was amazing, but full on. Very challenging. But I was still living at home, so I had that kind of safety net, like one foot in the comfort zone, one foot out. I found it really hard to make friends as a disabled person, like I didn't know how to be. And a lot of the students were pretty tough to crack. All these events that were going on, I didn't get invited because that was just assumed I wouldn't want to go. So I went from being this kind of, you know, popular kid and nice- with good with a good group of mates at school to going to this new environment of college and really struggling to be myself. But that's when that Beyond Boundaries BBC show then came around. So at the same time as I started art college, I started into TV. So it was all kind of happening, but then I got *boom*, another interruption. A massive change happened where I basically got what we call a pressure sore but it's not technically a pressure sore, in the area where I sit. So on my bum bone, I got a splinter underneath my bum bone and I didn't know it was there and it got infected. And I ended up in hospital and I had to have this infection, this abscess that had formed, removed. And then I had to go and lie on my stomach to let it heal. And the process of that healing basically would come to take three years. So I had to lie on my stomach for almost three years.
Annie [00:31:45] Oh my God!
Sophie [00:31:46] Yeah, it got really, really hard. Really hard. So that's what I mean. That kind of the accident and the injury and the crash was like mmm. What happens next in my life has been really challenging and harder, and that was the hardest time of my life. So I had to leave uni, I had to leave my friends behind. I was at my mum's on the bed for nearly yeah, the best part of three years waiting for it to heal. Bedrest, as we call it.
Annie [00:32:12] What are your memories of that time?
Sophie [00:32:14] Horrendous. Like it was the hardest time of my life and it was the worst experience I can imagine. It's hard for anyone who has to go through things like bedrest, but I think when you're someone like me who literally cannot sit still, I was destroyed actually. But I found art a lot, and I come to discover Frida Kahlo at that time, the painter.
Annie [00:32:38] Yes.
Sophie [00:32:39] And I got really into painting, and I just painted and painted and painted. Like Frida did when she was on bedrest.
Annie [00:32:46] So you were able to lie down and have the canvas-.
Sophie [00:32:48] The canvas under the bed.
Annie [00:32:49] Below you? So you'd be looking down at it.
Sophie [00:32:51] And I'd lean over the bed, like this, and I'd paint, and then all the blood would rush to my hands and I had to stop for a bit and then I'd move, rest, and then- so I just lay on my stomach. It was really challenging. But the impetus again, for, fuck it! When you get out of this, you are not stopping. Go, go, go, go, go. It kept being like, I'm going, I'm going. Stop. I'm going, I'm going. Stop. Life kept doing that to me but then basically, I got off that bedrest and that was me off. And I haven't stopped since. This is the thing about being a wheelchair user, is that people think the wheelchairs limiting, but actually, you know, having spent time where I can't even get in my wheelchair, when I'm in it, I'm like, this thing is my freedom. I am free to move. Wheelchairs are liberating, you know, there's a perception that they're very confining or disabling, but actually, most wheelchair users I know certainly feel, nah, no way, wheelchairs get you out and about and you can go places. Of course, they have their limitations. Steps don't help. But with the world becoming more accessible, you don't feel disabled if your environment isn't disabling.
[00:33:59] *Short musical interlude*
Sophie [00:34:11] Well, speaking of that, you really went places and, you know, you've been all over the world, you've done TV hosting for the Paralympics. And that's a really interesting conversation in itself, because in the book you describe just how the world seemed to open up completely for you as a disabled person around then and how it changed your own viewpoint of your ableism. I know you've touched on that. What was it like during the Paralympics to be a wheelchair user?
Sophie [00:34:42] Do you remember that summer, that summer in London? There was something in the air, do you remember it was the jubilee and everything. And the weather was amazing. And I'd been living in London at that point for about ten years and just kind of getting on with my life. I love TV. I wanted to work in TV, but there was no opportunity to work in TV really for someone like me. They kept saying, every time you tried to work on TV as a wheelchair user, they kept saying, yeah, but why? Why you? Surely you only want to do stuff around disability? I don't know. There was this real kind of attitude, you couldn't break through.
Annie [00:35:11] Small minded.
Sophie [00:35:12] Just couldn't get through. So I had kind of gone, ahhh I'll just paint. I'll just make art, that's what I'll do. Anyway, I was cracking on with life and then suddenly, I will never forget it. This advert for the Paralympics came on and it was the superhuman advert. And I was sitting there in my flat and I got goosebumps. I literally was like- it was filmed not far from where I lived. There were all these disabled people. I'd never seen disabled people represented like that. I was like what is going on. And I remember the Chuck D, Public Enemy, this music that went with it. Thank you for letting us be ourselves', it came on and I was like transfixed. I watched the advert loads and loads of times, and I thought, right, I want to be part of this.
Annie [00:35:51] And what was the superhuman line?
Sophie [00:35:53] 'Forget everything you know about what it means to be human. This is the superhumans'. And it was the introduction of the Great British Paralympic team. And in come's Ellie Simmonds and, you know, Hannah Cockcroft and Jonny Peacock and they're all rocking out with their disabilities on full show. Unapologetic. We are here. And I was blown away. I was like, right, this is it. This is the inclusion revolution, I thought.
Annie [00:36:18] Yeah, yeah.
Sophie [00:36:19] And I was like right, I want to be part of this. So I called Channel Four and I was like, 'hello, please, please can I, please can I be a part of it? Please'. And at this point I'd done a bit of telly, I'd made a couple of documentaries for the BBC, so they knew who I was and they were like, yeah, okay, you can have a job. So my job was to read the weather for the Paralympics and I'd sit in the Olympic Park, in London, in Stratford, with a little sign either with a sun on it or a cloud on it. And that was it. It was like 30 seconds. I was over the moon *Annie laughs*. I was like, I've arrived, I am so happy. But the reason why it was so amazing, actually, aside from getting this opportunity to be part of it on TV. In the real world, I was rolling around London and for the first time people weren't being like, oh, wheelchair user, get out of the way. They were like, hey! What do you do? Are you a Paralympian? And I was like, yeah. I wasn't *both laugh*. I'm going to ride this wave with them. I'm keeping up. And you know, I remembe going through Stratford and this little girl came running up to me and actually asked me for a picture *Annie gasps*. And she thought I was somebody else, she thought I was Hannah Cockcroft, the racer. But I was like, yeah, I'm having it *Annie laughs*. I will take that picture with you. And it was just so nice to be seen and not be like, you know, embarrassed or feel shame or- It was amazing. And also, obviously the infrastructure around London completely changed so the tube lines were suddenly- you know, I'd arrive at the tube and instead of being looked at and, ooh what are you doing here, it was a, 'oh, this way!', because all of the TFL knew what to do. So it was like, oh my gosh, this world has changed. And I was all for it, as you can imagine. I was basking in it. I was like, this is going to be the best ever. But unfortunately, after the games finished, it was almost like a bloody curtain just got dropped and everything just- everyone went home. And the show was over. That was it. And it felt like all of the wonderful change and representation, all of these things just felt like they just disappeared. And you started to see in the newspapers, stories of the superhumans, you know, not being able to get on the train to go to work or not be able to live their lives. And it was like, look, this is the reality actually behind this story that had been told at the time of what was happening. You know, and yes, these are athletes and they are elite athletes, but they're also disabled people struggling with the very same problems that disabled people who aren't athletes have to deal with. And I think that for me was a massive wake up call because I thought, oh, right, there's work to be done here. And then thankfully, four years later, when the Paralympics happened again in Rio, I got the job to be one of the lead anchors, and that's when my life completely changed. Not only had I got this job, but what I also got was a voice. So suddenly people would listen to me when I said I was having a shit time on the train or that this airline had done this thing to me or that I couldn't get, you know, employment here or that I- There was all these things that were happening and no one would care. And suddenly they started caring and it was like, right, here we go. This is what we do now. We use the voice. We raise your profile and raise your voice at the same time and let's see what happens.
Annie [00:39:22] Have you seen any change happen since you've been using your voice?
Sophie [00:39:26] Personally, yes. And in our community, 100%. It's been fascinating to see how things have just been gaining speed. You know, people are galvanised, I feel. And every time there's a problem, we now have social media as a tool as well. So you know when I was talking about TV being a tool? I didn't have social media back when I was first injured. TV was the place to go if you wanted to change ideas and change perceptions and talk about stuff. Now we have social media. We don't need the gatekeepers to let us in. We can tell everyone what's going on. And so there are some amazing influencers and advocates in my community out there changing the world and and it's extraordinary to watch. And I'm so lucky to be part of this community. I think they're- I'm biased, but I think they're the best community in the world *Annie laughs*. You know, the disabled community, it intersects with every other community. It's the one community that anyone can be a part of and probably everyone will be at some point in their lives. Do you know, Annie, I was thinking about this. I was listening to a podcast that you did recently and you talked about being the only woman in a man's world and how that's been for you. So you were always like wanting to prove yourself. You brought a crowd with you to a dance floor that was entirely new and like how you felt. I liken that to what it's like to be the disabled person. We're a minority. We've got a lot to prove to the non-disableds. We've got lots to prove. We've got lots to tell you about. I genuinely feel that the world would be a better place if we had more disabled leaders, because I feel like disabled people see the world from such a marginalised perspective and such a unique perspective, and they have such an abundance of such wonderful traits like creativity and resilience. And you know, you have to be so strong and brave. And the people I've been around who have these traits, I just like, I wish you ran the world. I do. Like Sinéad Burke, you know her.
Annie [00:41:19] Ahh, she's amazing.
Sophie [00:41:20] There you go.
Annie [00:41:20] She's been on this podcast, as has a girl called Grace Spence Green who I was so inspired by. I'm not sure if you know about her. She's a doctor. She had a very similar experience to you in that, the nature of her accident. She was in her early twenties and it was sudden and it changed her life forever. A spinal cord injury as well. She talked about this moment of empowerment for her when she learned how to sit in other people's discomfort. And she learned, this is not my responsibility. The way you are reacting to me is not mine to have to worry about. This kind of shift in her mindset of no, no, no, no. This is empowering for me. You're the one who's awkward. You're the one who's uncomfortable. I'm fine. And how that changed a lot for her.
Sophie [00:42:06] Yeah. I love Grace. Her story's extraordinary.
Annie [00:42:08] Extraordinary, yeah.
Sophie [00:42:09] Yeah. I remember to the moment when I stopped caring about other people's awkwardness around disability. I couldn't get over it when I first encountered it. I was the elephant in the room, you know? And how did I need to navigate that. And then you become so capable of being able to go into any other space where discomfort is and you're okay. Yeah, there is a turning point. You stop caring about how awkward people feel around you.
Annie [00:42:36] It will make you a great interviewer, when you do more of that. It will make you an amazing interviewer.
Sophie [00:42:41] It's really interesting you say that Annie, because I have just started a show. I'm really actually so excited about it going out because it's my own show. It's called Living Wild: How to Change Your Life. It's a show about people who've radically changed their lives and gone and done something like shifted from one life to another life. And they're completely different. And how do they do that? And I thought, this is where I have a skill as a presenter.
Annie [00:43:04] Yes!
Sophie [00:43:04] But, you know, going back to that awkward conversation thing. I think the other thing about it is you have this superpower. You don't care if people are awkward around you anymore, if they're uncomfortable with your disability, but if you want to make them feel at ease, you have the skills straight away to be able to help. And that I'm grateful for. I can empathise with discomfort and it's this bridge that I would probably not have had if I was just that arrogant little girl that thought she knew everything and she didn't.
Annie [00:43:32] Is there a moment where you knew that you didn't want to change your disability?
Sophie [00:43:39] It was after I wrote my book. It was the final chapter of my book. I had this bizarre experience where I decided I would have a conversation with myself at my young age. And I think we can all relate to this, that there's a younger version of you that either you miss or that you hate or that you've got some sort of weird relationship with. You know, when you look at pictures of yourself when you're younger and you're like, ooh, babe, you've no idea what's about to happen to you. And I thought, right I'm going to have a chat with her. So in the final chapter of my book, I do. And it was one of the- I just get emotional, thinking about it.
Annie [00:44:16] I'm not surprised.
Sophie [00:44:16] It was one of the weirdest experiences because I normally- the book's called Driving Forwards because I'm always driving forwards. I am literally that way. And I had to stop and look, that way. And I wrote this chapter in almost like a stream of consciousness. I imagined what I would do, not only if I had a conversation with her, but what would I do if I was her for a day. And the weird thing is, I get to the end of the day and I've done all this stuff right. I've done all the things that I wish I could do, you know, dancing or riding a horse with my mum or whatever it was that I write in this chapter. But I got to the end of the day, end of this stream of consciousness, this scribble, and I was like, I'd still want to be me. Shit. That was unexpected. And also, I thought that girl that I was would probably actually, instead of me being jealous of her or me wanting to be her, she might want to be me. And I was so shocked by what I wrote, I thought that's the end of my book. That's it. I've got to stop there because that's it. And now I've lived 18 years disabled and 18 years not disabled. And I've written this book at this milestone. And now I'm like, I'm at that stage again. I'm at that point again, I'm at that point where I was before. I'm at the precipice of the next chapter. I'm at the beginning and I know exactly who I am. I'm a grown disabled woman. I'm nearly 20 years disabled. And I'm like, where am I going next? And it's so exciting for me because I fully embody my disability, my identity. I know exactly who I am. I wouldn't change it now, you know.
Annie [00:45:53] I'm actually kind of speechless, I'm so like, just floored by you and your energy and the force around you and your strength and your passion. Honestly, it's. Wow.
Sophie [00:46:07] Thanks babe.
Annie [00:46:07] Thank you.
Sophie [00:46:07] I don't know. I've decided to do this thing. I know this sounds trite, and I don't know if you're into all of this. But I've decided to say everything's going to be okay. And I keep saying it to myself. Everything's going to be okay. Instead of thinking like, oh, what could go wrong? What could go wrong? I've decided to get rid of it with that and go, no, everything's going to fucking work out.
Annie [00:46:29] *Bursts out laughing* I love it! I absolutely love it. And I'm with you.
Sophie [00:46:34] Thank you.
Annie [00:46:34] And I've no doubt that it will. The last question we always ask about change is, what would you still like to make? Now we know, we have definitely confirmed that you are good. But the world around you still needs changing. And so, I know this is an enormous question, but, you know, I know you've thought about it and kind of made it your life's work so, what changes would you still like to see?
Sophie [00:46:57] *Exhales* It's a really challenging thing to answer quickly because it's almost like I could pick an issue, any issue, when it comes to disability. You know, the big thing I'd like to change is just people's attitudes to disability. It's so limiting. People put so many limits on us. Oh, you can't do that. Oh no, she couldn't do that. Oh no, you can't. And that in itself is stopping us with so much progress. But of course, layered into that, I want laws to change, policies to change, infrastructure to change. I want employment, housing to change. Like, there's just so much. But I think the overriding- the umbrella of all of it is I want people to see us and stop making assumptions, because it's the assumptions about us that stop us from living our lives. And so I think if I was to answer it in one, it would be that. Don't assume you know, because that's where it's like curiosity goes to die, isn't it? You just *poof*. 'Oh I know all about that' and *boom* end. Shut down. But if you don't, if you stay open minded and go, oh I don't know about that, can I ask you, and listen, then that's where you grow and that's where the change happens.
Annie [00:48:06] Sophie, thank you.
Sophie [00:48:08] Thank you so much for having me on this podcast. I love this podcast. I love what you do. Thank you so much.
Annie [00:48:13] I'm going to be buzzing all day, honestly... Thank you so much to Sophie for that conversation. I kind of had goose bumps at the end of it. I felt so uplifted and recharged and so inspired by Sophie's kind of zest for life. You can now watch Sophie's program, Living Wild: How to Change Your Life on Channel Four, where as she says, she meets different people who have changed their lives and built a life around something they love. You can also get her book, Driving Forwards. I really, really enjoyed it. As I said to her, she writes really beautifully, and it's such a detailed and granular account of going from being able bodied to being paralysed. And it really does make you think about every single aspect of your physiology and just appreciate it, I suppose, for what it is. I should also mention that Sophie came to my rave. The weekend after we spoke I was doing one of my club nights in London, the Before Midnight concept which starts at 7 and ends at 12, and Sophie came along to that. She was actually the first person I saw. We got a selfie, she danced all night on the dance floor with everyone else and had the best time, so I was very happy to see her there. Thank you so much for listening this week. If you did enjoy it, please don't forget to rate, review it and subscribe to Changes if you haven't done already. Share it online. I post all the Changes stuff. Lots of clips, visual clips from these conversations on my Instagram. You can find me there @AnnieMacmanus. M a c m a n u s. And we will be back next week with more of course. Changes is produced by Louise Mason through DIN Productions. Seeya!