Campaign for people with disabilities
I met Wendy Tiffin earlier this year as part of a series of portraits of inspiring folks selected by the Media Trust for their annual review. I was commissioned to take her portrait in her room in a Leonard Cheshire home in Poole, where I found Wendy surrounded by personal memorabilia. I posted some of these photographs on my Portraits that Matter site way back in January, but ever since I’ve been meaning to write a little more of Wendy’s remarkable story here. From behind my camera, I couldn’t help but ask Wendy a bit about how she had come to the Media Trust’s attention. She is an impressive example of triumph over adversity. Challenged with serious ill health since an early age, society’s response has been to try and exclude Wendy. Strong-willed and tenacious, she refuses to be discouraged and diverts her energy to campaigning to make life better for all those with disabilities.
Doctors found that Wendy had a brain tumour when she was three, and then again aged eight. When the local authorities wanted Wendy to go into special school, her parents (who clearly share Wendy’s genes) fought against it. She proved them right by gaining enough qualifications aged sixteen to go on and work for the Inland Revenue. In her mid-twenties, Wendy again suffered a long period of illness and was asked to take early retirement. Not a decision she was happy to have to make. Another big operation at that time left Wendy with no feeling below her chest, and she was told that she would soon become wheelchair dependent.
Wendy had managed to live independently with her mother until she died last year. Her grief was compounded with the loss of freedom that was to follow. Wendy decided that she had no choice but to move into a Leonard Cheshire home. Many of the other residents suffer from cerebral palsy or MS and so communication can be difficult for them. However, Wendy, a bright forty-something who just has trouble getting around, has no trouble at all getting her opinion understood. She refuses to let her loss of career get her down and is determined to use her skills to make a difference in whatever way she can.
Wendy started with local campaigns, such as trying to improve the steep camber on local pavements, which makes getting around by wheelchair treacherous. Then she decided to try her hand at bigger issues: “When the proposed cutbacks to the disability living allowance were announced in the 2010 Spending Review, I was livid and thought “what can I do?” I started by writing to the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Maria Miller to name a few.” Wendy went on marches in London and gave her first speech at a regional march in Southampton. She attracted enough attention that she was asked to participate in the national Low Review; An attempt to assess the impact of changes to the Mobility Allowance for people in residential care. When I met her, Wendy was delighted to report that this benefit would be staying in place: “A relief after all that campaigning”.
For now Wendy is devoting her efforts to making a difference within Leonard Cheshire Homes as a representative on the Service Users Network Association at local, regional and national level. I suspect it will not be long before she finds another campaign for disability rights that needs her support and skills.
As I prepared to leave, Wendy surprised me by asking how old I was. It turns out we are both the same age at 42. As I write this now and I find myself thinking about what was happening in my life as Wendy battled with ill-health, lost her career, her mother, and then her home, I have even more admiration for her ability to forge ahead and make a positive difference to the world around her. Thank you Wendy for sharing your story.