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Taking rehabilitation to the extreme



“How many kids in a wheelchair get to see the world from the top of a mountain, and then slide down it?” says Chris Loyn, who first saw his son Jack’s face light up as he hurtled down a ski slope four years ago.

“To be out of his wheelchair and suddenly flying freely down a mountain, the fresh air blasting in his face, it was just awesome.”

Jack, now 30, suffered a brain hemorrhage at just two weeks old and was left wheelchair bound as a result of spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy.

In 2015 Chris heard of an organised ski trip taking people with severe brain injuries and complex disabilities to France for an adventure he hadn’t thought possible.

Now Jack, who until then had never been outside his home country of Wales, is “obsessed” by the annual trip when he gets to feel the thrill of navigating the mountain in a sit-ski again.

And Chris cherishes the moments he and his son share at the summit – he with a pint in hand, Jack a cup of tea – taking in the stunning views.

“It really does change lives,” says Chris. “The difference it made when we got him skiing is incredible. It’s given him a passion, something that he didn’t expect to be able to do.”

The trips have been transformative for Jack physically too, says Chris.

“He’s actually moving his legs and shifting his body weight more. One of his support workers sent me a video the other week of Jack standing. That’s the first time since he was a baby.”

Jack is among a growing number of individuals who are defying expectations thanks to Accessible Dreams, an initiative enabling people with complex disabilities to tick adventurous experiences off their bucket list.

Having worked as a case manager in brain injury rehabilitation for 18 years, Nicola Cale began informally organising ski trips for a handful of her clients around 10 years ago.

Since then, numbers have grown and the adventures have become more and more ambitious. Nicola has hosted all manner of trips and experiences for people living with severe brain and spinal injuries; from catching giant waves on an adapted surfboard in Devon to swimming with sharks and coming face to face with wild elephants on a ‘wheelchair safari’ in Africa.

The ski trips now regularly see around 60 people, including families and support teams, jetting off to France together.

“When you put people together and take them to a new place, you get the most wonderful kind of synergy,” she says. “It’s not that they forget about their injury or disability, but something transcends and they’re able to experience themselves in a different environment. It’s absolutely amazing to see the light come back on.”

Now Nicola is officially launching Accessible Dreams as a professional service, offering a calendar of organised trips, but also a range of resources for families and individuals who want to plan their own adventures, but may need some guidance or inside knowledge.

She hopes it will allow more people to benefit from the experience of stepping out of everyday normality and into an adventure. This, she says, is something which many people with brain injuries rarely have the opportunity to do.

“If you can dream it, you can do it – that’s where the name Accessible Dreams came from. The trips are a drive to say ‘so something terrible has happened in your life, but how can we make it good again? How can we come out of the daily gloom?’”

Nicola believes fulfilling lifelong dreams, which many will have felt had been dashed as a result of their injuries, can have tangible benefits in terms of the individual’s rehabilitation.

“You can anchor memories with humour and positive experiences,” she says. “It moves them out of their day-to-day lives, because the humdrum really can be quite isolating, and is not active rehabilitation. If you can take people away and do something different with them and help them to meet new people, it changes something radically.

“I know that it’s been life-changing for people and that’s what drives me.

“The trips give people something to look forward to, and something to plan for. It’s the chance to use some initiative – it’s not completely spoon fed – but we are there to problem solve and iron out all the glitches if something goes wrong,” she says.

Trainee occupational therapist, Georgie Deakin, has been a regular on the trips, supporting clients with a variety of different needs, on skiing, surfing and safari adventures.

“When I look back at the photos of all these trips it looks like a group of friends going on holiday,” says Georgie. “It doesn’t look like a formal, organised trip for people with special needs – which it is – but it’s all done very quietly in the background.”

Having this support in place has enabled Georgie’s clients to achieve beyond what they thought possible. For example, one cortically blind young man was able to successfully ski from one resort to the other, while a girl with cerebral palsy took on the slopes without a sit-ski.

Georgie says: “It gives everybody the confidence to try out these things that they may not have considered, in an environment where we have tried and tested it and we know what to expect and what is possible.”

Georgie herself has gained a lot from being part of the experiences, alongside her clients.

“The biggest benefit is the community that comes from travelling with a group having the wider support from different teams. We travel with nurses and other practitioners, so there’s always a wealth of knowledge. It’s a feeling of community that you don’t get when you’re on holiday by yourself or with one or two support workers.”

According to Nicola, the camaraderie and social aspect of the trips can be just as impactful as the activities themselves. Lifelong friendships have been formed in the mountains, between families who set off on the journey as strangers, she says.

While not everyone’s budget can cover regular skiing holidays in the Alps, there are opportunities closer to home too. For example, visits to the Calvert Trust in the Lake District, days out to the theatre and glamping trips.

Through Accessible Dreams, Nicola will also direct people to other sources of funding, and identify trips that meet specific needs and budgets.

“I want what we do to be available to everybody. I think that’s really important, because it is an investment.”

And one not just for the individuals, but their families too. For many, the opportunity to be a normal family – if only for a few days – is priceless.

“It can really be amazing for families to see their loved ones enjoying life,” says Nicola. “It’s just normalising life again. I’ve also seen mums and dads get on skis and learn something about themselves.”

This is certainly the case for Jack’s dad, Chris. “I get the satisfaction that I’m doing an okay job as a dad, because I’m taking away limitations for him, raising his spirits and giving him hope,” he says.

“That’s why I do it. Plus, it’s a holiday for dad as well – I do like skiing,” he laughs.

Probably not as much as Jack though, who watches the video footage from the latest trip on a weekly basis as he counts down the days until he’ll next be on the mountain.

“He’s obsessed, you can see his little face light up smiling,” says Chris. “I wish all kids in wheelchairs could have that experience.”


Neuro Rehab Times is the magazine for all professionals involved in the care and rehabilitation of people with neurological conditions and severe injuries. Get your copy, filled with exclusive print-first content, every quarter for just £24.99 per year.


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