The care worker
Sylvia Johnson, 49, looked after disabled people in their
own homes for seven years for North Tyneside Council. She was
forced to retire four years ago because of chronic back problems,
which she believes were brought about by her work. She says: “I was
working mostly with wheelchair-bound people – usually sufferers
from multiple sclerosis or arthritis. I loved it, it was really
satisfying work. It involved doing everything, getting people up,
bathing them, dressing them, getting meals, and taking them out
shopping. So you’d lift them into your car, and lift their
wheelchair into the boot. I feel that’s what did a lot of the
damage, because you are not lifting things close to your
“When I started doing the job my back was fine. The problem built
up until I was getting up at 4am for work at 7.30 because it took
me two hours just to get moving in the morning. One day I’d taken
an elderly lady shopping, and I was carrying all her shopping up to
her third floor flat, hauling myself up the stairs by the hand
rail. It just dawned on me that I was in a worse state than she
was. So I went to the GP, who sent me to see a hospital
“He looked at my x-rays and said he couldn’t see how I was even
walking. All my discs were fused at the top and the bottom of my
spine. They tried a lumbar epidural [a painkiller injected into the
spine] which made me feel like Wonder Woman for two weeks, and then
it wore off. Then I had a plaster cast from under my boobs to the
top of my legs for four months. The idea was to straighten me out.
But when it came off it hadn’t worked.
“Now I live on painkillers. Everything has to be at waist level or
above – I’m sowing seeds for the garden at the moment, and my
husband has to put the soil on the chair so I can reach it. I can
manage the upright hoover, but it stays at the bottom of the stairs
until he moves it for me.
“I don’t feel bitter about it, not now. And in the beginning I
expected to get better – never in a million years did I think I’d
end up like this.
“One chap was 16 stone, and he’d sit on a plastic sling with
handles, and two of us would have one handle each, and we’d lower
him into the bath. I didn’t think it was doing any damage, and it
was needed. Everyone else did it, so you did too.
“I would definitely tell people not to do it. But when you get
someone and they can’t move on their own, what do you do? Do you
stand there and say ‘I can’t help, it’s against regulations’? No
carer in their right mind would say that to people, would they? You
put yourself in their place. I never even thought about what it
would do to me.
“What would make a difference? Hospital beds, because you could
raise them to the level that you wanted. Hoists aren’t always the
answer. Lots of people have thick pile carpets – you try
manoeuvring someone in a hoist across that. Pushing and pulling
someone can be just as bad as lifting them.
“I did have training. In fact, I trained other people how to ‘move
and handle’ – after a while they stopped calling it lifting. I know
things have drastically changed at work since I left. The council
is being very careful now because there are so many injuries – they
are really protective. Nobody’s allowed to do any lifting at
“I haven’t heard a word from my employer since the day I left. I
went off sick at the end of January 1998. They sent me to the works
doctor, and after a year he said I couldn’t return to work. I got
three months’ notice with pay.” CC THE DISABLED PERSON
The diabled person
Helen Speight, 53, was born with a condition called
arthro-gryposis, which affects her joint mobility and use of her
muscles. She has been married to Alec for 11 years, and has a
personal assistant, Kathleen. She says: “I’ve been a wheelchair
user more or less all my life, but I didn’t have any community care
input until I got married. Before then my mum and dad used to
“I found out about the Independent Living Fund, and in a sense
that’s where the problems started, because it was implied that
unless I could use a glide sheet [rather than being lifted] I
wouldn’t be able to have a personal assistant.
“So, when the occupational therapist brought a glide sheet for me
to try, I was a bit naughty and said ‘oh yes, that’ll work fine
once we’ve got used to it’. So they gave me the go-ahead and I
advertised and employed a personal assistant.
“The truth is that I can’t get out of my chair unless my husband
lifts me. In the house I don’t sit right back in my wheelchair, I
perch on the edge. But when I go out I have to sit right back for
stability, which involves someone pulling me back.
“I asked about training for lifting and handling for Kathleen, but
was told they (Bedfordshire social services and the local NHS
trust) operated a no-lifting policy. Which means, effectively, that
if I need to go anywhere for more than an hour or two, I have to
take my husband with me. Kathleen and I have devised a way of
getting me back into the chair if Alec isn’t available, but it
really is a palaver. We have to take the sides of the chair out,
take the back down, and then Kathleen puts her arms around me from
the back and we have to rock from side to side, while I shuffle
back. I don’t get right back the way I would like to be, but it’s
better than nothing. It does feel ridiculous, really.
“In hospital the same thing applies. The nurses put you on a cotton
sheet and they grab the sheet and lift. From my point of view
there’s no difference, they’re still lifting you. But rather that
than use a hoist.
“You’ve just got to mention hoists to me and the red mist comes
down. They should be put on a big bonfire and burned. I detest and
loathe them. People get this idea that everyone can sit in the
correct position, but I can’t – I end up almost lying down. The
edges dig into your flesh, and its extremely painful. Plus it’s
totally undignified – you end up swinging about like a dead animal
on a butcher’s hook.
“It infuriates me when people keep discussing disabled people as
‘loads’. I am not a filing cabinet – I am a living, breathing
“Kathleen has lifted me slightly at times, but, because she hasn’t
been taught properly, I’m nervous about it and we don’t do it
often. If we went into Newcastle I have to be careful what I drink
in case I need the loo. It’s easy enough to get out and to the
toilet but, to get back into the chair again, we have to go through
this silly ritual of taking the chair to pieces.
“I feel extremely angry about it. Having a personal assistant
should mean independence, but the no-lifting policy has such a
restrictive impact on my life, and on Alec’s. It means that he’s
got to come with me whenever I’m doing something – whether it’s
visiting my mum or going shopping.
“I do realise that people need to be protected – they only have one
back. I really believe training is the answer. Physiotherapists
have devised ways that minimise the risks, and if people are
properly trained and follow the rules, they should be okay. And
there are lots of dangers in life. A blanket no-lifting policy is
like saying lifeguards shouldn’t be required to swim, or
firefighters shouldn’t be required to go into burning buildings.”