The Health and Wellbeing Show with Cornwall Mobility, the leading centre for driving an independent living in the Southwest.
Host: Mat, thank you very much for joining us. How are you?
Mat: I’m very well, thank you, yeah.
Host: Fantastic. So you’re one of the board members of Cornwall Mobility.
Mat: That’s right.
Host: First of all, before we go into a bit of your background and a bit more about who you are, how did you get involved with Cornwall Mobility?
Mat: I actually met one of the other trustees doing hydrotherapy, funnily enough, and we just - when you’re doing hydrotherapy, you are stuck in a pool for an hour with these random people, and so you’re going there every week and you try and get on with people, and it’s really good. And she was lovely, and we were talking about charities, and what it’s like to be disabled in Cornwall, and what I had done in the past. And then she said, “I think we should have a chat outside of the pool,” and that was it. They asked for my CV to go across to the chairman, Colin, and that’s how I got it. I was very very pleased to be asked.
Host: Let’s go back a notch then. Tell us a bit about Mat Campbell-Hill - who you are and your background.
Mat: Wow, I’m not sure we’ve got the time! It’s a bit random. So I used to work in a bit of marketing, PR and those horrible words, and then in and out of technology and media, but I was up in London as so many people end up, and it’s not a nice place. Don’t believe anybody who says it is. It’s dirty, it’s busy, it’s horrible, it’s loud. So of course, I wanted to come away from London and my wife moved down here to work at the hospital, so I moved down with her and I started working with an excellent charity called Pentreath, which is a mental health charity. And I was working as a youth worker with them, working on their youth projects. Unfortunately, in 2009, I had a spinal injury through various issues with operations going wrong, and that led to me being told that I should mourn the life I have lost, and that I should expect to really be stuck in bed for the rest of my life, which was a bit stressful at the time, and I did it for six months, but there is only so much Xbox you can play. Even someone like me, who loves gaming. And I was lucky that I had really really supportive friends and family around who also put a lot of effort and energy into finding me complimentary treatments, so new types of physiotherapy and things like that. So for example, anyone who watches a lot of sport may see some of those brightly coloured tapes that Wayne Rooney and Beckham wear - that’s called kinesio tape. And that’s not really been out of in the mainstream very long, and I was lucky in that my sister who had lived up in Glasgow, is one of the early practitioners of that, and she was helping me doing taping and learning how to support muscle groups that no longer work in my spine. That got me going, and I was encouraged to go back to my sport that I used to do, which was fencing and I started the Paralympic version. Now I’m a wheelchair athlete for Great Britain, which is part of the appeal of being involved with Cornwall Mobility as well. It’s nice to be able to bring a very different view as an elite wheelchair athlete.
Host: Going through the spinal injury, for anyone that’s a lot to go through, and then all these years later to be an athlete competing for Great Britain. That’s just an incredible leap. How did you do that mentally?
Mat: It is really difficult. It is really difficult, and it’s like when you hear people say, “Oh that person is overweight, I don’t know why they don’t just lose weight.” Because it’s really difficult, and we all have different things in our lives. When you get to the point where you have no other choice, that is the make or breaker, and when you have no other choice, it can be very difficult for people to choose what is the right choice moving forward and make the positive decision because it is so hard. And as I said, having lots of people around me saying “Let’s find something and let’s get you going.” And I was really really lucky, I met someone who had really excelled in his life, who is an older man. He was the ex-head of the RAF, and I had actually helped co-found a small charitable organization just in Cornwall whilst I was in hospital, and I’d sort of run it out of my bed a bit. And as a result, I got to meet him at an awards ceremony. But he was the one that said, “okay right, it’s time to focus on you and have some fun. What did you used to enjoy?” And actually, when you get disabled, if you become disabled, you kind of think there is no point anymore - yes, I used to enjoy that but I can’t do that, or I don’t want to try and do that because if I can’t do that, it’s even worse than just assuming you can’t do it - finding out I can’t do it. He said, basically, shut up, go back - at least try and find your friends because you lose contact with people, and that’s something a lot of disabled people find is isolation. You do get isolated very quickly. You’re stuck at home - even the best of friends all find it hard to find time in their day regularly get in touch and say let’s go and do this, or I’ll come and see you and do this. So you’ve got get something back - it’s that realization. I was really lucky, as I said, to have those people behind me. I went down there and actually there was an extra lucky bit which I haven’t been to my club for two years by the time I went back - and in that time, they just happened to employ a guy from Japan who happened to be the ex-Paralympic Japanese coach. So they’d suddenly become this disabled-friendly club at the international level in the time I had been away. So a bit of luck, a bit of perseverance, a bit of being a bit pig-headed, really.
Host: Prior to your spinal surgery, did you ever live with people who have had disability? Did you encounter disability in your day-to-day life?
Mat: Yes, I had, but not physical in the way that I have had it, in passing. The charity I had done was working with just disabled people, so I had met people with lots of different disabilities, but not really concentrated on what the disability was or what it meant for them so much, but I grew up - my mother was a teacher of deaf children. She would work trying to help deaf children learn to lip read but also speak rather than relying on signing, which of course doesn’t necessarily help them move on. And my dad used to work in an eye hospital, so I grew up with people with sensory issues, so I was very comfortable with that. What’s different when you go into wheelchair support now is how quickly you have to get used to the idea that someone takes off their leg in front of you, or their arm, just as though they are taking off gloves. Even as a thirty-year old, that was a bit - you used to find yourself staring - stop staring! Stop staring! But it’s weird, and they’ll laugh at you and say, “yeah, I have just taken off both my legs and one of your arms.” And then they beat you, which also doesn’t help! But it proves that if they can do it, then you can do it. And there are people with such bad injury in sport and they’ve been told similar things. I know one guy whose parents were told just to leave him at an orphanage somewhere, “Go away, just don’t look back,” but he is now doing fantastic things. It’s that resilience - and when you see what people can do in sport, it makes a massive difference to their own mental health as well as what they think they can do outside of their sport, and you realize what people are missing out on who don’t get involved.
Host: How have you found public awareness of disability?
Mat: It’s really interesting. It depends on what I’m wearing. I am a case-in-point, where if I’m totally honest, I am very embarrassed about my injury, so the walking stick I use is not a classic walking stick. It’s a hiking stick, so it kind of looks like, oh I’ve just injured my leg or something. So I can walk short distances with a limp, and I have a wheelchair - and I should be using a wheelchair a lot because I am making myself worse by not using a wheelchair - but again it’s a bit embarrassing and a bit difficult to use a wheelchair around Cornwall. I use it when I go upcountry to London and Manchester, and it makes life a lot easier for me, and takes a lot of pain out of issues I have with pain. But bearing in mind that I’m someone who is relatively confident about what my injury is and what I can look forward to realize that I am very embarrassed about people seeing with me with my injury, and also depressed about the idea that I have got a nine-month old boy that is in a few months time going to be wanting to play football, and I go, “Will I be able to do that?” Whatever! Nobody wants to do it. That’s annoying and that’s upsetting, but then you just think, what else can I do instead? If it’s difficult for me, then I know it’s difficult for everyone else. I think it’s a hard thing to ask people who aren’t disabled to understand what it’s like to be disabled because you can’t, and it’s just as hard a thing to say “bear it in mind all the time.” Because we can’t. We can’t all bear in mind everyone’s issues. Everyone has got their own issues, whether it is physical disability, mental health issues or just having a really rough day. You can’t bear that in mind. You know, we try to be nice to each other but it’s about building up your own resilience.
Host: Sport for you was fencing, and still is. Fencing is a big part of your life. Is Rio on the cards for you?
Mat: That’s certainly the hope, yeah, that’s certainly the hope. I think I’m ranked 24th in the world at the moment. I’ve got to be somewhere - somewhere a bit higher. It’s really close. It’s really close. So when you get into the top thirty, the difference in points is not huge between somewhere being around 30th and being around 10th, and I’ve got to be - for me to be really confident of where I’m at in Rio, is to be somewhere in the top 10. To put that into perspective, my coach was saying that I’ve got to just get a couple of extra points at each competition and actually that will be it. And I’m getting close. I’ve had two World Cup medals in the past two years, I’ve captained the men’s team a few times. So that’s really good fun, and yeah, if we can take it to Rio, that would be brilliant. And hopefully we can come back with a medal. That’s obviously the plan. I wouldn’t be training all the time and stressing people out all the time if that wasn’t the way.
Host: Yeah. How much training do you have to do?
Mat: So the average is meant to be about 22 hours a week, which tends to average - because I work as well - it tends to average over a month, and that will mean some weekends, I’ll do quite a lot of hours on the weekend. But actually, it helps me because the way I’ve been able to get out of bed and keep going is by doing lots and lots and lots of physio. And continuing to do lots and lots and lots of physio. And so these are hours that I’d have to be doing as physio anyway, and for God love all those physios out there, but oh, physio is boring! Physio can be really good fun for a while, but I’ve had to find a way to mix it up and keep it going. And I have a couple of very very very patient coaches, and Truro Fencing Club and they do have a lot of high-end able-bodied people here on the Olympians - Olympic coaches and Olympic physiotherapists. And I’m sure they just think, “Oh, again!” because I’m always getting more injuries. But yeah, just doing those hours means I can keep going, and if I stopped - if I had to have stopped for a week - then I’d end up back stuck in bed with things going into spasm and stuff. So it is its own reason for doing it.
Host: Now you mentioned you were very lucky because you were already part of the Fencing Club and when you went back to the club, there happened to be the Paralympic coach there which worked out really well for you. What kind of support is there here in Cornwall for sport and people with disability?
Mat: So it’s really difficult, because there is a lot of misconception about what is needed around sport, around the disabled. And as I said a minute ago, people don’t know what to do around being disabled - oh, should I always mollycoddle them, should I... no, they’re a person. If they are the sort of person that needs mollycoddling, it doesn’t really matter if they are disabled or not. They are that sort of person. And clubs have to make money. Coaching doesn’t make a lot of money, and you’ve really got to love your sport to want to be a coach. And we are so lucky in Cornwall, we have really good athletes and coaches across so many different sports. Telling them that they need to do - they want to do - some disabled sporting, “oh no, what am I going to have to do for that?” or “oh no, I can’t do that,” whereas actually, it can be quite simple. It can be as simple as a disabled person going to a club and saying, “Can I come swimming?” They will say oh we haven’t got any - we haven’t done any - yeah, my basic issue as a coach is (A) to make sure people don’t drown and (B) to make sure they get better. So yeah, you’re disabled, all I really need to do as a coach at that point is to sit down for half an hour and say, “Right, what are your issues? Explain to me about your disability.” It doesn’t matter if you have had no medical training, that’s fine. If you want to learn more, that’s going to help you as with your able-bodied people that are coming along to do your sport. So sit down and go through it. And that’s where somewhere like Cornwall Mobility can come in, because if you are really concerned about whether you are going to be able to offer it - I want to offer this, maybe I want to make sure my surf club can help spinal injuries get involved, and not only will I have more people being involved but actually financially it’s viable because you are increasing people who are coming to see you. You can apply for different funding schemes, not from Cornwall Mobility, but from around the country, including in Cornwall. So you can come to Cornwall Mobility and chat to them about what are the sort of people that - how could I work with these people? Are there any aids that I can ask them to buy which will help them get going, or should I send them to you? And that’s just a basic understanding of I’m working with a new type of person, just as you would if you were going from, “I only work with 14 year-olds and upwards who have done this sport before” to “I’m going to work with people who want to start out at age six.” That’s a whole different kettle of fish and actually working with four-year olds and six-year olds sounds like much more of a nightmare. So yeah, it’s that sort of just be open about it and move forward. There is a lot of choice for able-bodied in sport in Cornwall. As you said, I was really lucky just to turn up at the doorstep of my old club and they have a dedicated Paralympic coach - not just a disabled coach, but a Paralympic coach. It was huge. But the reward for them has been huge as well, because I was able to say, “OK, I really want to engage with this. I really need to get my life back.” They have been able to access funding - not loads - but a bit of extra funding and as a result, we’ve had a growing wheelchair club. It’s not just me, so I came on and I have helped them build up a wheelchair club which fluctuates in numbers as all club memberships do, but out of them, the members that they have had, since 2012, we’ve had three World Cup medals. As a club, they have had me as the captain of the Great Britain team, competing at World Cups, European Championships. I’m going to be going to the World Championships this year. Hopefully we’ll be competing at Paralympics. So as a coach, working with someone that’s just coming along off the street, can you say that about all your people that come along? If you can’t, then have a look at engaging with some other groups of people that really want to get engaged, and have really have something to gain from it more than the average person.
Host: Yeah, great. Thank you very much for that. So as you mentioned, there is funding available - not from Cornwall Mobility - but if people have any questions or want a bit of advice, they can go to Cornwall Mobility and speak to the team.
Mat: Yeah, that’s right.
Host: Well, Mat, we really appreciate your time in coming in today. Wish you all the best of luck. I think it would be great to get you back on the show as well in a few months time just to find out how it’s going, how training is going. If people want to find out any more information from Cornwall Mobility themselves, how can they get involved?
Mat: Well, we’ve got a brand new website - well it’s a couple of months old - go onto there. It’s www.cornwallmobility.co.uk or just Google us and pick up the number there and get in touch. But if you are disabled and you are finding any issues with your own mobility, maybe you’re not disabled, you don’t have to be disabled, but you’re feeling sore and you can’t pick up things off the floor so easily, just come down to Cornwall Mobility and get an assessment and see what can be done to help you.
Host: Brilliant, Mat, thank you very much.
Mat: Thank you.
The Health and Wellbeing Show with Cornwall Mobility, the leading centre for driving an independent living in the Southwest.