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23rd November 2016

Just a little bit of understanding

Johanna Thewlis discusses what she learned from Broken

From the first page, it is obvious that Emma White does not live a conventional life, she is delicately staining a woman’s chest with henna at a festival when she gets the call that will change her life. Anyone would be afraid upon finding out that their boyfriend and life partner had broken their spinal chord, but for people whose lives are dictated by adventure, the fear goes even deeper. Desperate to reclaim the life they had together pre-accident, Emma and her boyfriend, Kev, travel from Canada to Australia, to go camping in the outback. But how do you take a man still adjusting to a life with disability on a trip around the outback ‘when even a trip out to a new restaurant without calamity is a huge accomplishment’?  It may seem impossible to imagine yourself in such a situation, but Emma brings you right into the thick of it with sounds and smells and colours that lift from the page.

‘Am I completely insane? I’m taking a recently disabled guy with serious health issues, who is only just learning how to live life in a wheelchair, into the Australian outback.’

Reading this book, you gain a new appreciation for people living with disability, after watching Kev struggle for weeks to mount a concrete kerb in a wheelchair, Emma observes: ‘disabled people doing stuff — even basic, everyday stuff— impresses us’.

It’s not just completing the same standard tasks as anyone else that becomes more difficult, there’s a whole new set of challenges accompanying paraplegia that most people are never aware of. ‘I can handle not being able to walk; I am just so sick of this other shit as well.’ Kev says after yet another mortifying accident. ‘The infections, the spasms, the pain and the embarrassing accidents are a kick in the guts after a fist in the teeth.’

It seems like there are so many stories of overcoming disability that only talk about the triumphs and the successes, Broken, is different in that most of the book is taken up with the failures, the low points and the struggles. It shows people who are not ok, who don’t feel like they are ‘getting through it’ or even coping, but somehow are anyway because they have to.

Broken is inspiring because it’s so real. Emma struggles with anger at the situation, Kev struggles against other people’s perceived pity. They swear, they fight, they laugh, there are no hopeful clichés in this book, no platitudes or apologies, just two people dealing with the shit life slings them.

But the story doesn’t end with the final pages, Emma and Kev are now dealing with the fresh challenges associated with parenting when one of the parents is disabled. Sadly, those challenges are centred less around the physical practicalities and are more to do with other people’s perception of a disabled person’s capabilities. If you take anything away from this book, it should be the ability to see past disability and realise there’s a person behind the wheelchair, a person who’s probably a little sick of the stares and awkwardness, who doesn’t need your pity or your help, just a little bit of understanding.