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Chris Dempster's Story

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To mark our 30th anniversary, we’re releasing 30 stories from wheelchair users across our history.

This ambitious and historic project will result in stories being archived as part of the The British Library Sound Archives ensuring that the life experiences of wheelchair users today are captured forever. With thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund and The British Library for their support.

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From getting to school from his family home, to studying philosophy and discussing the state of migrants and asylum seekers in the UK today, Chris’ interview spans a huge range of topics. 

Living with cerebal palsy, Chris shares with us his early memories of getting sweet treats whilst on hospital visits, how physiotherapists stretched his body during clinics and his rejection of wheelchairs during his university days.

With a strong theme of addressing social issues throughout his life, Chris also touches on subjects such as environmental activism, exclusion and explains how his mother’s philosophy of, “there are no problems, there are only puzzles” has helped shape his outlook on life.

Chris travels along a bridge in his manual wheelchair

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Disability as a ‘battle to overcome’ - Listen to a clip here

"The narrative of these things that were kind of always put forward in media and always put forward in things.

"In movies, it's always a story of someone who breaks their back but then works through the year’s worth of physiotherapy to run the Boston Marathon.

"It's never the story of the person who goes through a life-changing circumstance and acclimatises to their new life in a way that they feel really positive about.

"The disability or the loss of ability is always shown as a tragedy, a weakness that needs to be overcome, as opposed to something that you live with, it's always shown as a combat, as a battle for those and is overcome through a strength of will, and part of that is to realise what that is.

"It's a nice story and it's a narrative that sells books and gets bums on seats and cinema, but it doesn't need to be your story and you can approach that in different ways.

"I think for me, realising that that relationship that I had wasn't coming from me was coming from outside and I was with something that I'd adopted because I thought that was what I needed to be doing."

Chris laughs while in his manual wheelchair by a river

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The power and agency to choose - Listen to a clip here

"I still do walk with an aid like a crutch, and I probably should use two crotches, but if you use two crutches you can't go shopping because your hands are full.

"I am still physically capable of walking and back then, the rule was always, it's OK to walk going out and about, but if you're going any significant distance, do it in the chair.

"So anytime really at the weekend we were doing anything, what I felt like was made to use the chair when I didn't want to.

"So there were a few times where I would try and make my case that that I would be fine and, generally speaking, I was overruled.

"So when I went to university, I just didn't tell anybody and just walked everywhere, and I managed.

"I think one of the things is that you internalise this narrative, that those things are symbols of what you're not capable of doing, as opposed to nothing more than tools that allow you to do the things that you want to do."

Disabling connections at school - Listen to a clip here

"Pretty much all of my education has been in Scotland.

"Back at that time, and I'm assuming this is a universal thing where disabled kids would… at recess - the point at which kids get outside and get to run around and get into trouble - the disabled kids were, generally speaking, kind of kept indoors.

"So during primary school at those recess points I was by myself, in a room just reading books.

"And then come secondary school, there were a few more of us, so I wasn't by myself at that point, but because everyone had different disabilities, people were operating on different levels, so still kind of separate.

"It's not like I wasn't interacting with other kids in class and it's not like I didn't have friends, but I suppose it's those points outside the class that you're actually building connections."

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