We are all the same, but all different
Having created articles for various magazines and publications over the years, I have become akin to seeking subject matters that stand out, providing something of interest for the readers. Amidst the horde of Tweets and Facebook posts from OU law students announcing their degree results to the world last month, I came across a rather special Tweet that drew my attention due to the mention of a remarkably high grade of 95%. Her profile read ‘law graduate, meningitis survivor, quadruple amputee’. Immediately my brain whirred into action, contemplating how I could tell the story of a disabled law student fighting against all odds to obtain her law degree, however I soon found out that in fact I had been thinking about her situation in the entirely wrong context. Helen Dolphin MBE is not special because she has done so well ‘despite’ her disability. She is in fact an extraordinary woman who just so happens to be disabled. As Helen pointed out to me, “we are all the same, but all different, and that’s the way life is…”
Destined for greatness
It is hard not to focus on the fact that Helen is a quadruple amputee and meningitis survivor, as society would see this as a ‘headline grabber’, however she was destined for greatness long before her disability. Throughout school she was interested in biology and in 1997 she graduated from the University of Bath with a 2:1 in Molecular and Cellular Biology and an undergraduate certificate in education (UGCE). She was three months into her Phd in Obesity at Imperial College, London, when on Christmas day 1997 she fell prey to meningococcal septicaemia (the blood poisoning form of meningitis). Within a matter of days, she had been misdiagnosed twice with flu and food poisoning, resulting in the amputation of both her of legs and hands. However, it seems as though this did not ‘make or break’ her. She is not extraordinary ‘because of’ or ‘despite’ her disability… She was always going to be extraordinary at anything she put her mind to. If Helen had not contracted meningococcal septicaemia, I have no doubt that she would have been one of the world’s leading molecular biologists.
Just as Manchester United has little need for the world’s smartest man if he cannot play football, laboratories have little need for biologists without hands. Helen adapted quickly and soon found a new calling in life as a journalist and news reporter for Anglia/ITV in 2000. Helen’s run in with fate was nothing more than a catalyst for a change of career, just as ‘the recession’ or ‘falling in love’ may be catalysts for others. Whilst the UK’s chat hosts, tabloid writers and TV producers attempted to shine the light on Helen’s trials and tribulations, she used this opportunity to get a step into the door of journalism, reverting from the subject matter to the reporter. She said “I was on local TV so much that I thought I would go and work for them!”
During the subsequent years, Helen has obtained countless awards and accolades, from a Pride of Britain Award 1999 to an MBE presented by Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace in 2015. From an ITV Consumer award 2004 for one of her news reports which exposed Norwich bus services as being inaccessible, to her very own Olympic Torch (having taken part in the Olympic torch relay). Oh yes, by the way, Helen took part in the Paralympic trials in 2012 and was the fastest freestyle swimmer with an s.5 classification in the UK at the time. She could have swam in the Paralympic games if the UK did not have such tough selection criteria, one of which being that swimmers must have a chance of medalling (Helen would have come 7th had she been entered). It seems ludicrous that this needs to be squeezed into one paragraph. However, because Helen has so many achievements, I am finding it very hard to compact everything into an article anywhere short of a full biography!
To see a video of Helen in action, click here.
Journalism to law
When discussing the misdiagnoses that lead to such a severe disability, I envisioned Helen taking the Bachelor of Laws LLB in order to seek retribution, revenge and compensation from those doctors who could potentially have prevented her disability. Although Helen did try to pursue some compensation for her injuries, she was told that the doctors who misdiagnosed her were not negligent as 50% of doctors probably would have diagnosed and responded the same way. Helen is now content with that finding and reminded me that “doctors can’t be held responsible for everything that happens” and that there is no point dwelling on it. Helen was very sympathetic, thinking more of the doctors than herself, who will have to live with the decisions that they made, for the rest of their life.
In fact, the reason that Helen decided to take the LLB through the OU was purely down to chance. A series of seemingly unconnected events saw Helen go from a journalist to working for a charity to an independent mobility consultant. Whilst working as a journalist for ITV, Helen released a report on how inaccessible Oxford Street (the most popular shopping street in the UK) was for disabled people. Over a decade later, things still haven’t changed. “It’s 2016, we’ve had equality laws for over 20 years, and [the shops] have still done nothing. Disabled people are discriminated against bringing cases and that is why so few establishments will do anything until they are sued. Many disabled people are unable to do it because having to live with their own condition is enough on its own, without bringing a court case” she argues. However, Helen has now brought a number of equality cases herself and the compensation from these helped pay for her law degree.
Her passion for the law soon erupted as she came to work with Unity Law, a law firm that deals with a lot of equality cases. Managing Partner Chris Fry persuaded Helen to take the LLB so that she may one day become an equality lawyer and Helen soon found out that she had an incredible talent for law. Not only did she gain 94% in her 2nd year, 93% in Contract and Tort in her 3rd year (achieving an award for the highest mark in the year), but also smashed these scores to pieces in her 4th year gaining 95% in Land Law and Equity. I currently work in a law firm specialising in equity release, so I can testify to how much dedication it takes to score so highly, in such a dry subject!
Helen may not have been able to take her law degree if it were not for the OU’s distance learning approach to studying. There is little possibility for most people to take a degree whilst working full time, therefore “the OU makes law affordable”. Whilst Helen started the LLB due to her work on equality cases and strong belief that disabled people are still in this day and age being discriminated against, she found criminal law most interesting (if you’ve studied some of the OU Law School’s case readings for criminal law modules, you will understand why they are so, erm, intriguing)! Helen also thought that contract law was very relevant as if she got ‘dodgy goods’ from somewhere she would now know what to do, and that EU law really does affect UK law, which she doesn’t think a lot of people realise (read one of Helens interesting articles about this here).
Although Helen did not request special treatment, the OU provided her with some allowances for her disability. They provided her module material in ring bound books as she cannot hold books open, they provided a note taking assistant for two hours per week to transcribe her notes and whilst attending seminars, and allowed double time for her to complete her exams at home as she is only able to type one handed with her split hook, one key at a time. Of course, as is life, not everything went smoothly. It took a while to get someone in place to help with her disability and like other students, she had to change tutors due to certain clashes of personality and teaching methods (however she also had some amazing tutors who she loved and was inspired by).
Remarkably Helen met all of her deadlines and never requested an extension, all whilst working as a motoring correspondent, managing her consultancy business, and setting up a brand new Ltd company in January 2016 ‘peoplesparking.org’ with her husband; aimed at providing accreditation and driving up standards in the car parking industry. Helen believes that studying the LLB with the OU demonstrated that she can still learn, has the ability to study, and can balance it around everything else. Helen even tried to encourage the OU to enter a sports team at swimming competitions and asked if she could swim under their name, however unfortunately this did not come to anything. Helen, along with many other students (including the OULS who is actively trying to make headway) believes that the OU could become even greater by getting involved in setting up ‘campus based university’ activities to bring students closer together.
A poignant fact taken from Helen’s recent twitter feed got me thinking about people’s perception of disabled people: ‘nearly two-thirds of people have admitted that they avoid disabled people because they don’t know how to act around them’. I asked Helen how she thought ‘the two-thirds’ should act; whether they should go out of their way to help those with disabilities, or whether in fact disabled people preferred to ‘prove themselves’ as ‘abled’ as others. I soon realised that the questions I had asked were in themselves irrelevant. I would not consider asking how people ought to act around those with blonde hair, or who were French, or surfers, or civil servants. Helen pointed out that “you should treat other people how you want to be treated, if anyone wants extra help, they will ask you”. The very fact idea that people should act differently around disabled people is unequitable.
For those who are studying their law degree, you may well have studied ‘equity’. Most have an extremely difficult time understanding the difference between equity and equality. The ‘lightbulb moment’ for me was seeing the following image which helped explain the difference between equality and equity in an easy to understand graphic.
After speaking to Helen, I have now further expanded my view. Both equality and equity can be used to accommodate every person’s differences, however this only provides a partial solution to a pre-existing problem.
As the above graphic that relates equality/equity to disability (from a fantastic article) shows, what Helen is aiming to achieve through her consultancy business, parking company, media and law, is to remove the barriers that cause any inequality (or inequity) in the first place. Helen provides the following example that ultimately helped her realise the social benefit of creating peoplesparking.org. This is that despite modern technology in cars that make driving easier for disabled people (equity), when trying to park those cars “if you can’t activate the barrier, or pay for parking [due to the disability] then you are really stuck”. The car park barrier, is literally a systematic barrier that imposes the need for an equality or equity based solution!
Success is contagious
Whilst Helen has no immediate intention to follow the crowd of law graduates and take the LPC or BPTC, she does plan on using her law degree in the future. Helen will never sit contently through life. She will always have the admirable drive to change people’s lives and make the world a better place. There is no question that Helen will succeed at everything she does, be it at business, charity or in her personal life. Meeting her husband Paul in 2007, they instantly fell for each other, had a weekend away in Paris after three months, moved in with each other after nine months, and married three years later. Sharing my strong passion for hiking, Paul has hiked Kilimanjaro as well as organising the ‘3 Peaks Challenge’ for the asset management company he works for. He shares Helen’s drive and ambition, hoping to tackle Aconcagua in the Andes as well as ‘The 7 Peaks’.
Helen must really breath success, as the achievements that she has accomplished are incomparable. It is at this articles concluding point that I must refer back to the title quote, as many a headline grabber would state that Helen has ‘overcome her disability where others would have failed’. Rather, Helen is extraordinary because of her personality, drive to succeed and passion for helping others, not because of her disability.
As she so poignantly quotes, “we are all the same, but different”.
Follow Helen on Twitter at: MrsFlipper1001
Written by James Sudworth – OULS News Editor