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‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it’

Author, journalist and amputee, Ella Dove explains the importance of representation when it comes to disability.

In May 2016, aged 25, my life changed forever when on my way home from a morning jog with my sister, I tripped over. This was no normal fall. Somehow, I dislocated my knee, but I also severely fractured it, cutting off my circulation.

The pain was white-hot and nauseating. By the time I got to hospital, my right foot was cold, and turning blue. After three extensive operations to try to restart the blood flow, I was lying in intensive care, once strong and carefree, now weak and fragile. Gently, surgeons explained that amputation was my only option.

In those early days, I couldn’t see a future. I knew nothing about amputees; I only knew that everything I had once taken for granted had vanished. I found it virtually impossible to visualise any brightness in my future. But it was there.

A year and a half after losing my leg, I found myself dancing in the arms of Paralympian Jonnie Peacock. It was 2017 and the champion sprinter - a below the knee amputee like me - had been announced as a contestant on BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing, the first amputee to appear on the hit show.

When I found out, I had joked with my colleagues at Good Housekeeping magazine that I should try and dance with him, because between us, we literally had ‘two left feet’. Fast forward a couple of months and there I was, swirling around in a La-La Land style yellow floaty dress. It happened.

Along with the rest of the nation, I watched Jonnie’s performances in awe. As an amputee, it meant so much to feel represented in the mainstream media. In recent years, we’ve also seen triathlete and upper limb amputee Lauren Steadman take to the Strictly floor, while Marc Elliott has cooked up a storm in the latest series of The Great British Bake Off.

Here’s the thing: as amputees, we want the world to see that disability does not mean inability. Okay, we may not all be Paralympians. But we all have our talents, our strengths and passions. We want to be seen for what we can do, not what we can’t. And in order to feel capable of achieving our goals and dreams, we need to feel included and accepted in society and the media. This is why representation is so important.

Last year, my debut novel, Five Steps To Happy, was published. The main character, Heidi, is a below knee amputee, who has the same accident as me – falling over on a canal path while running. I wanted to write a book with an amputee at its heart; to explore the real emotions associated with limb loss, the pain and the fear as well as the triumph and pride at taking those first tentative, shaky steps towards the future.

This book, I felt, was my contribution to visibility of amputees in the world of art and literature. There is so much about the amputee journey that remains a mystery to those who are not or have not met an amputee. I wanted to show what it’s like, from someone who has been there, to challenge perceptions and ultimately offer a sense of hope for anyone feeling stuck, lost or struggling to overcome hurdles in their own life.

More recently, I have taken on a role as trustee of the Limbless Association, a charity I am immensely indebted to for their advice and support along this journey. As their slogan rightly states, ‘no amputee need cope alone.’

There is a phrase often cited when it comes to diversity in all forms: ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’ Never has this been truer than now. In our current times of separation, protest and change, we need to encourage representation in all areas, whether disability, race, sexuality or religion.

The power of role models cannot be understated. Even as an adult, I remember that flutter of excitement I felt to see Jonnie Peacock jiving on his running blade to Jonny B. Goode. Imagine, then, what young amputees everywhere would have thought? To achieve, we need to firstly believe. And that wide-eyed wonder is what dreams are made of.

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