Londoners’ experiences of life-changing injuries

Body image and disability

After life-changing injuries, people sometimes looked different than before and their bodies didn’t always function in the way they used to. They often experienced anxiety, frustration, and problems with mood and emotion. People with brain injury often dealt with a range of challenges that weren’t always apparent' problems with memory, understanding, behaviour and personality change. These changes had consequences for their lives and their identities.
After injury, people we spoke to often experienced a loss of self-confidence and because of this some became withdrawn and didn’t want to go out. Nick Y said that after his son Jamie was injured he didn’t want people to see him in his wheelchair. “He would not let me take him in his wheelchair down to the town centre because he didn’t want people to see him. He’s past that stage now, I think.”
Another factor that affected people’s confidence was how they felt about the changes to their body after injury. Simon A said initially he was embarrassed by his injury. But people said that getting fit, pushing their boundaries and going out with friends helped them to regain their confidence. Louise worked through her body issues by photographing herself, a process she found “aesthetic and therapeutic”. By raising their body confidence they became confident in other areas of their lives.
The way they looked was important for some. They didn’t want to be different from others or be stared at, and disliked it when others were aware of their impairments. This sometimes related to pride. Bill said that it was important to be able to show other people you’re “a whole person” because they don’t understand what a “part person” is. Amputees were able to wear a cosmesis over their prosthetic limb to hide it, which Nick Y said was important for him. Jack didn’t want to wear one because it was not realistic enough for him.
Sometimes this changed and people got used to others staring or felt their physical appearance improved. It was important for some to accept their injuries and not hide them, although other people with brain injury thought the hidden nature of their impairments could work to their advantage.
We asked people to think about whether they felt disabled by their injuries and their responses varied. For instance, Juri who has a visual impairment hadn’t thought about whether he was disabled, while Bridget said she did, but also didn’t, see herself as disabled. Jack said he felt more disabled when his prosthesis was covered by trousers, as people then saw a man with a limp.
Even though they thought they probably were considered to be disabled, people didn’t necessarily feel that way. People like Ambrose thought others probably see him as more disabled then he himself feels. For some, this was because they thought their condition would improve or they would be cured in the future. They recognised that there were things they could no longer do, but there were others they could do and do well. Jack said he felt restricted by his limitations since his amputation, but didn’t see himself as disabled and Nick Y said his pride prevented him from accepting he was disabled. Accepting disability took time, but acceptance didn’t mean that their injuries became life-defining. It was important that others saw them as the people they are and not their ‘disability’.
Although some people weren’t sure if they were or if they felt disabled, others definitely thought they were disabled. Nick Z thought it was important to come to terms with the fact he was disabled, but that it was also important to strive for improvement. He said, “I strive to be as able as possible, but I am paralysed from my chest down. I think it’s important to psychologically come to terms with that fact, whilst at the same time striving for improvement”. Louise said she had a “minor disability” as she can no longer run or walk downstairs properly, and others said that they felt disabled at times.
When it came to judging their level of disability or whether they were disabled or not, people compared themselves to others who had similar injuries, but they didn’t see always see themselves as the same. Initially after injury, Bridget didn’t think she had much in common with other people with brain injury because they looked to be more severely affected by injury than she was. People also felt that the hidden nature of brain injury made it hard to deal with.

Last reviewed May 2019.


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