Hi, I’m Gem, a disability lifestyle vlogger. I am a T10 incomplete spinal cord injury survivor, and because of my injury, I use a wheelchair to get around. I am disabled, along with the majority of my social media followers, who are either disabled or live with chronic illnesses. This is my story about how social media has saved me.
Social media gets a bad reputation for being addictive, bad for self-esteem or a place for trolling and cyberbullying. As a parent, I know these worries can be magnified when we think about our children using it. But when I asked my followers “How would you feel without social media?” nearly every single one replied with ‘lonely’, ‘isolated’, ‘lost’, or ‘depressed’. Now, you may disagree with this. In fact, you or your children may think they would feel ‘free’, ‘happier’ or ‘less stressed’ without social media, but let me just put you in my position for a minute.
My spinal cord injury happened when I was nine after I suffered complications during major open heart surgery. Waking up after being in a coma and being told you’ll never walk again was devastating. My world crashed down around me, but I didn’t have a choice. I had to keep living. I spent years in and out of rehabilitation, was home schooled for a year, and eventually, I was well enough to start secondary school. These became the darkest and most depressing years of my life. Not only was I coping with becoming a teen – and attempting to fit in – I was trying to come to terms with my disability. I was in a mainstream school and was the only disabled child there. I felt so alone and isolated. In my darkest moments, I questioned if I could carry on at all.
Looking back, I realise I had no one I could identify with, at school or in the media. Back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, there wasn’t anyone I saw in the public eye who had a disability. Who looked like me. It was all about being a size zero and manufactured perfect girl bands. A far cry from who I was, basically.
Fast forward to 2015, when I decided to start an Instagram page called @Wheelsnoheels_. This was when Instagram was just starting to take off, and it opened up a whole new world for me. I started to see other disabled people, other wheelchair users, others who were “just like me.” I could see these people doing amazing things with a sense of belonging – the feeling I was missing when I was younger. I decided to start my own YouTube channel to discuss my life and struggles, and to show people how I cope in this world with my disability. I show others what I have achieved, and how I navigate life in a wheelchair.
Then something amazing happened, and people started to engage and enjoy my videos. I would get hundreds of comments, and people would then reply to other people’s comments, and before long I had helped build this amazing community, which took on a life of its own. A community where we can all feel a sense of belonging, share tips and advice. Where we can be unapologetically ourselves.
@Wheelsnoheels_ offers advice and support to hundreds and thousands of people across the world. It offers a voice, friendship, and a window into the lives of those unable to get out of the house for months on end. It inspires them to do things they thought they couldn’t. It’s thanks to my page and others like mine that the disabled community can connect, educate and inspire each other. None of this would have been possible without social media.
So, to all the parents out there worrying about its pitfalls, take a second to consider how amazing it can be, too. It’s been a lifeline for me, and so many others in my position that would feel ‘lonely’, ‘isolated’, ‘lost’ and ‘depressed’ without it. And for that, I’m truly grateful.
Gem Hubbard, Wheels No Heels