The Simon Heng Column – 19 October

When I first became disabled, I lived in a hostel for people with physical disabilities. Although there were many disadvantages to living in an institution, I learned valuable lessons, things that would have been more difficult to acquire if I hadn’t been so close to so many other disabled people for so long.

I saw how other disabled people developed relationships (good and bad) with their carers, which helped me work out how I wanted to relate to my own personal assistants in the future.

I found out how other wheelchair users dealt with the physical barriers to access, practically and emotionally, and how they reacted to casual discrimination and abuse; sometimes I’d be thinking “great idea”, and at other times, “I’ll never do it like that”. We shared ideas and solutions, such as how to deal with the benefits system, and sometimes just had a good moan about life with the people who understood our point of view best. Most of all, it gave me a point of reference, and the feeling that I wasn’t the only one with these particular struggles in life.

The hostel has disappeared and the kind of people who lived there now move directly into homes of their own. This might be a positive change in many ways, but something has been lost. People risk isolation from the support of their peers, and miss out on the chance to have role models.

We all have role models, whether it’s Nelson Mandela, David Beckham or Jordan, but they don’t have to be famous.

I believe that people with disabilities deserve the chance to have other disabled people as role models, to emulate or to reject, surrounded as we are by the able. We could all use someone with experience to reflect upon our lives, from time to time. To give physically disabled people this opportunity, we’re thinking of starting a local mentoring scheme, and I’ve been trying to find out whether anything like this are already exists in this country.

If you know of one, or you’re part of one, please e-mail me at

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