Angel Dixon is an advocate, a model and product designer who lives with a disability. She works on global passion projects surrounding universal design and inclusion. She has walked the runway at Los Angeles Fashion Week for inclusive designers Bezgraniz Couture, she is ambassador for Starting with Julius a not-for-profit organisation here in Australia that works towards disability inclusion in media, advertising and education, she has started a global network for people who have sustained a spinal cord injury from spinal cord strokes and she is designing a line of  walking canes with the hope of removing the negative emotions that come with purchasing a mobility tool.

Her passion for universal design and inclusion developed out of necessity. When a spinal cord stroke left her with incomplete paralysis, she found herself in an environment and a society that was no longer built for her. After years of exerting energy on trying to adapt, she decided to educate the world on her needs and wants with the hope that maybe something would change

Here’s what happened

On the 10th of April 2009 at around 8am I woke up with muscle soreness in my right quadricep. It was weird because I was a fit 19 year old and hadn’t done any exercise to warrant such tenderness in just one leg. At 10am I asked my boyfriend, Scott to rub my neck and shoulders. I was experiencing stabbing pains between my shoulder blades. The pain was enough to be annoying but not enough to worry.

It was Good Friday in my home town, a small beachy place on the East coast of Australia and on public holiday’s nothing was open so we got ready to go to the beach and made our way to the car. On opening the car door the pain worsened and my arms went numb and tingly. I lost all control of my upper body and fell to the ground. Scott put me in the car and drove me to the hospital. I rolled around on the emergency room floor for what seemed like an eternity. By the time I got to see a doctor the numbness in my arms had settled slightly. The doctor told me I was presenting with symptoms of an injured nerve or a slipped disc in my back. He gave me some drugs and sent me home. Everything after that gets a little blurry but I do remember my mum showering me that night and not being able to tell if the water was hot or cold.

The drugs were still working their magic the next morning so I wasn’t alarmed when I tried to get out of bed to go to the bathroom and nothing happened. I yelled to mum for help. She rang the ambulance. The paramedics did a few examinations and quickly realised I was paralysed from the neck down. They took me back to hospital. It was now Easter Saturday and there was no MRI machine available. I had a CT scan and was put on a plane and flown to another hospital. From that point onward I was in and out of consciousness. By midnight I was admitted to a ward.

Shock

The following morning I woke to the news that I had had a stroke. It took some time to determine that it was a clot and not a bleed but once determined I was started on blood thinners. Shortly after, my left eye dropped slightly. I had a spinal cord infarction (a blood clot in my spinal cord) and when started on blood thinners a piece broke off and continued to my brain. The clot in my spinal cord hardened an artery and though difficult to determine it appeared to have started at T4/T5 level and finished at high C’s.

A doctor came in one morning to discuss the situation. The details of the conversation are fuzzy but I do remember being told very delicately that walking may be difficult for me now but I should work with the physiotherapist and occupational therapist and “wait and see what happens”.

What I have learnt since then is that when it comes to damage to a spinal cord, no one really knows anything until the cord itself figures out what’s what. The amount of time before you know what your body will be left with is also undeterminable as it can be totally different for every injury.

After six weeks in hospital the inflammation around my spinal cord had started to subside and I had naturally regained some use of my body. I could move my arms and the fingers on my right hand. My right leg seemed to have lost strength but was working in all the right ways. Mentally at this point I was in shock, which is actually a great place to be because you do everything you’re told to do and don’t really feel a thing. I knew I had a job to do so I did it. I learned to walk again.

With the help of my mum, Scott, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and my recovering spinal cord I was able to begin cutting very slow laps of the ward with the aid of a walker. Initially I lost the use of my bowel and bladder but they were back to working somewhat on their own and I had adapted as well as I possibly could to the neurological pain that seemed to be all over my body.

I spent another four weeks in a rehabilitation ward gaining strength in the muscles I had and learning to use my left leg and hand as functionally as possible. It was around this time that I was allowed to leave the hospital for day trips. As much as it was lovely that my mum and Scott wanted to take me out and remind me that life existed outside the hospital walls, I found it exhausting and frustrating and longed to be back in the space where everyone was sick and no one looked at you funny.

Survival

Eventually the hatred of being poked and prodded all day outweighed my fears of leaving and physically I was functional enough to leave, so I did. I was very unstable on my feet and had no use of my left hand, I needed help to do most things. The lack of control I had over my mind and body was infuriating and terrifying. I stopped going to doctors and physical therapy. Scott and I did crazy things to remind us that we still could, we went on adventures. I spent my days doing anything and everything to prove to myself and to everyone around me that I was moving forward. We filled our lives with distractions and circumnavigated the elephant that was my deteriorating body. It wasn’t a conscious decision it was more like survival instincts.

Acceptance

Ten months later my mum enrolled me in a new spinal cord rehabilitation program. She convinced me to try it. I was terrified but she drove me to the gymnasium just as she used to when I was a little girl with pigtails and a bouncy attitude. My attitude was not bouncy that day but each day got easier and I grew to enjoy the challenge, both mental and physical. I got stronger and quicker in using the muscles that I did have and learnt how to stretch and maintain the ones that didn’t work so well.

It was inspirational to be surrounded by people who had accepted their situation and were genuinely moving forward. They were working hard to preserve as much mobility as they possibly could so they could live their lives to the fullest. I learnt that acceptance is a lifestyle.

Now

Those first two years of my new life flew by as have the five proceeding them. My life is different now and it can be frustrating and difficult at times but who’s to say it wouldn’t be either of those things without my disability. My disability changed my life. It gave me a different view of the world and how I want to spend my time here. It changed my pace.

When the 10th of April comes around every year, Scott and I celebrate. We do all those crazy things to prove that we still can and also to remind us how much that day changed our lives for the better.