Student Days - A Memoir Piece on Personal Assistants

Tue,16 January 2024
Blog Equality & Rights Health & Social Care
One of DR UK's Trustees, Madeline Close, shares with us a chatty and touching piece of writing reminiscing on her student days, weaving in how important Personal Assistants can be for Disabled people's independence and quality of life.

We all lived in a big old rambling villa just off Papanui Road in Christchurch, New Zealand. Rick owned the house. He bought it out of his compensation when he broke his neck aged 17. No, it wasn’t a schoolboy rugby accident. Rick was stupid enough to dive into shallow water. The on-call specialist refused to go to the accident scene as he didn’t think Rick would live. Rick was floated across Lyttelton Harbour to the awaiting ambulance strapped to an old door. He spent over a year in the spinal unit at Burwood Hospital balancing schooling, rehab, physio and OT.

Sue, Rob (taking the photo), Geoff (out with a girlfriend) and I lived rent free. No bills - except our food - in turn for getting Rick up one morning a week, making his breakfast and a packed lunch for uni. Even in those days before student fees, rent free accommodation was a valuable boost to our individual finances as we were all living on student bursaries and scholarships or doing postgraduate degrees. Rick was doing a PhD in electrical engineering. Sue was completing her masters in English while doing night school chemistry hoping to get into med school. Rob, a farmer’s son, was completing a second agricultural engineering degree in irrigation. Geoff was doing a BA in history and I was a student nurse.

I did Monday mornings as I was always in college that day. If I wasn’t at college on ‘block’ weekdays then I could be doing shift work in any Christchurch hospital (either public or private) including Sunnyside psychiatric hospital. I also got to work in a carpet factory when I was doing my occupational health, as well as VD outpatients’ clinic and a secure children’s home, more akin to a correctional facility than a therapeutic environment.

At Rick’s we took turns to cook an evening meal, which we all sat down to eat together. The rule was that if you didn’t like something you had to eat at least a tablespoon of it. Geoff was vegetarian and Sue sickened me off Tofu for life! We also took turns to get Rick into his bed at night. We must have done some cleaning - I don’t remember - though the washing in the background of photo memories testifies to our keeping up to date with the laundry. Whenever someone went home for a weekend, they would come back with tins of biscuits and cakes because our mothers would compete to supply us with home baking. Alternatively, one of us would get a long-distance phone call to go and meet the railway bus at 5pm as there was a food parcel on it.

Depending on our study timetables someone would drive Rick in his adapted VW camper van to the Riccarton campus. Again, depending on schedules, someone would drive Rick home after university - which meant we also saved on transport costs.

It was a great model that worked. Free accommodation in turn for being a part-time personal assistant. Back in the 80’s in New Zealand, domiciliary care was provided by district nurses, who didn’t start work until 8.30, which was too late for Rick to get ready for a morning lecture. And when you are in your early twenties, who wants to live in a care home with predominantly elderly residents. Rick was able to run his home as he saw fit, control his care and live with fellow students his own age. It is a model that more people in the UK, who need care, company, cooking or cleaning and who live alone in what was their family home, could adapt.

The district nurses came in on Saturdays and Sundays, which meant everyone except me had a sleep-in. I worked part-time as a nurse aide in a nearby care home. Depending on rosters I worked 3, 6, 8, 11, or 16 hours each weekend.

Both Rick and I experienced the medical model of disability, however we lived the social model of disability. Rick and I both experienced different types of care – nursing, domiciliary, residential and the Rolls-Royce for any Disabled Person who wants to be as independent as possible namely, employing personal assistants.

One night in February 1982 I lost over 90% of my central vision. Then in July 1982 I left the house in Bligh’s Road, New Zealand within three hours of learning of my grandmother’s death in order to get to Ireland with two hours to spare before her funeral.

Where are they now?

In 1995 Rick co-founded Aranz, a multi-million-dollar company, originally focused on 3D medical imaging. He is a trustee of Burwood Academy of Independent Living. Sue is married with a family and is a GP back in her home town of Invercargill. Rob married a girl he met while on a Voluntary Service Overseas water project in Indonesia. Presumably he now runs the family farm in the Waikato. Geoff is married and lives in Australia. Me? I am a trustee of Disability Rights UK and a director of the user-led co-operative Disabled People’s Voice, which promotes the role of Personal Assistants in care.