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3rd December 2018

Empowering people with disabilities

British wheelchair basketball paralympian Laurie Williams has a big list of achievements.

Despite being diagnosed with a debilitating nerve condition called motor neuropathy as a toddler following an undiagnosed virus, Laurie later shot to fame on the basketball court, where she became known as “the whippet” because of her incredible speed. On International Day of Persons with Disabilities, whose theme this year is “Empowering persons with disabilities and ensuring inclusiveness and equality”, Laurie enthusiastically shares her story with This Is MedTech.

“When I was 18 months old, I was rushed into hospital after losing the ability to walk and sit up over a 48-hour period. The doctors had no way of telling what was going on at this stage and I was in intensive care until my condition stabilised,” explains the 26-year-old from Manchester.

“As a result of this I was left without the ability to use my right leg and only partial movement in my left leg. The virus also appeared to have attacked some of my motor nerves in my trunk as well, leaving me with a weakened core which eventually contributed to scoliosis.” Throughout her childhood, this meant annual trips to the hospital for x-rays of her back to monitor the curvature of her spine. Fortunately, the virus never attacked Laurie’s sensory nerves, so she still has full feeling throughout her body.

Although “in hindsight growing up with a disability wasn’t easy, at the time I didn’t know any better and just accepted things as they came,” says Laurie. “High school had a lot more challenges than primary school. For some classes including science, technology and physical education (PE), I had to have a special support worker with me. I absolutely hated having to have a supporter with me – it just wasn’t ‘cool’ – and I always tried to be as independent as possible.”

PE lessons were particularly difficult, as they weren’t adapted for people with disabilities. “I think their knowledge of paralympic sport was very limited and I often couldn’t join in with the class. This led to me getting bad school reports from the PE teacher which was ridiculous,” she recalls. Her mother took matters into her own hands and decided to take Laurie to an athletics club to help her keep fit.

“At the time my brother ran with an athletics group, so my mum took me along just to push me around the track really,” says Laurie. The coach there suggested entering the Greater Manchester Youth Games which had a disabled athletes category, so her mum signed her up. “It was at this event that I was spotted by my first ever basketball coach, Josie Cichockyj. She had a very cool looking wheelchair with her that she let me use to race in, on the condition that I would come along to try wheelchair basketball.”

The rest was history. After that Laurie didn’t really look back and fell in love with the sport. “I was told that I had quite a natural talent for wheelchair basketball and I was so excited by all the opportunities that basketball would provide me with that I decided to invest my time and try to go pro.”

Laurie’s passions extend far beyond basketball, however. She really enjoys travelling and exploring places.” I try not to let my disability get in the way and I’m always looking to find new places that are great for access! I’m also really interested in the environment; I’m a keen supporter of Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and enjoy finding ways to reduce my carbon footprint and help others do the same.”

Laurie is a true rule model for young people living with a disability. She tells them to “strive to achieve what you know you’re capable of,” adding: “Don’t let having a disability prevent you from reaching your goals. It can be difficult growing up with a disability and even though sometimes you’ll have to do things differently from other people, use this to your advantage and embrace the opportunities that life as a disabled person can provide you with.”