29th August 2019

James Blackwell: how I learned to embrace my disability

Paralympian and Civican reveals how accepting his cerebral palsy changed his life for the better

James Blackwell, Business Development Manager at Civica, recently gave a keynote speech at Access All Areas, an inclusive event in Bristol organised by charity WECIL to celebrate and empower the disabled community.

Using his annual Civica Donate-a-day entitlement to join the event, James reassured the 300-plus attendees that having a disability does not equate to inability.

“My parents were told when I was born that I’d never walk due to my cerebral palsy. Discrimination legislation hadn’t taken off so I wasn’t allowed to attend my village’s primary school, not because of what I could or couldn’t do but because I had a disability.

“When I could finally attend, I was actually one of the best footballers and runners, which is probably why I tried to hide my disability as much as I could. I was afraid that people would pick on me or treat me differently as a result, so I made up that I’d broken my thumb as a baby which affected the nerves and muscles on my left side.

“My parents took me to physiotherapy several times a week which helped, and I was fortunate to play a fairly high level of mainstream football, playing for the South West of England against some professional youth teams.

“I was with my fiancée (now wife) for seven years when I knew I had to tell her. A massive weight was lifted off my shoulders when she said, ‘So what? You’re still you.’ Just after our honeymoon I joined the England football team, helping us reach our highest ever finish at every tournament since.

“After the 2015 World Cup where we qualified for the Rio Olympics, I was playing for my mainstream football team and got fouled, landing on my neck with someone on top of me. Losing feeling in my limbs, even on my good side, to then suffering sharp pains sounded like I had broken my neck to the on-call GP at A&E. That was confirmed in an X-ray. My spinal cord was just millimetres away from being completely severed: the GP said I was lucky to be alive, let alone walking.

“Again, my loved ones were faced with the fear that I may never walk after the operation I desperately needed. Rio was at the back of my mind as more importantly, my son was just 12 weeks old. I’m lucky to say that my operation was a success but the recovery was a long one.

“Fast forward five months, I worked with the surgeon and physiotherapist to build myself up and fully recovered to be selected for Rio. Representing GB was an amazing experience, especially to play in front of 15,000 fans!

“If I had still tried to hide my disability, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I’ve been afforded, despite the hiccups along the way. I encourage everyone to embrace who they are, because you just don’t know what life will throw at you. I wish I had done so sooner.”

To read about Civica’s approach to diversity, please follow this link.