It was bloody scary on the water,” Barry West admits. Then he lets out a chuckle, as he spots the opportunity for a joke. “Well, I can’t swim, can I?” It’s a self-deprecating way for the 40-year-old to highlight just how extreme extreme sports can be, when you are paralysed from the neck down.
One of the stars of new documentary Disabled Daredevils, Bazza – as he likes to be known – is no stranger to taking risks. A veteran adrenaline junkie, he has racked up an impressive array of high-energy experiences, from scuba diving to skydiving and paragliding, in the 20 years since a car accident left him tetraplegic.
Now, along with seven other daredevils with disabilities, the father of one from Eastbourne is taking on five high-risk challenges in five days. From bungee jumping to hanging off a giant swing, it’s heart-racing stuff. But with the added difficulties of chronic pain, catheter bags and hips that pop out of their sockets, the danger itself becomes more acute. For Bazza, water-skiing was made more perilous because his lung capacity is only 20%: “I thought, ‘If I fall it will take them 10-15 seconds to help me, and if I am face down, I will drown.”
Despite the adrenaline overload, it’s the personalities that make the biggest impact. They are all outsized characters who are as rowdy as they are brave. At first it can seem like the programme-makers are intent on showing the group at their most outspoken to avoid any earnestness. So, we have Jenna, born with small arms, describing herself as a T rex – “tiny arms, big legs, the fucker you don’t mess about with” – and showing off her party trick of pulling her top off with her big toe. And Paula, a ballroom dancer, saying that what is weird about being in a wheelchair is that “people stare at your tits”.
Yet there’s a sweetness that tempers the high jinks, with the group offering each other support, and discussing their attitudes towards their physical challenges. Barry is the show’s emotional heart. Upbeat and wise, he offers enthusiastic cheerleading and gentle words of advice. And when I meet him at Eastbourne hospital – where he has spent the past six months battling infections and struggling to breathe unaided – he is just as charming. Thanks to a series of tracheotomies, his voice is down to a whisper, but the tattoos across his body mark his adventures, including the three-peak challenge (climbing the highest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales) and canoeing trips, as well as his motto: “One life, live it”. Nestled on the hospital bed, between his feet, is his most important achievement: his six-month-old son, Harrison – born two weeks before Bazza was admitted to hospital.
Just 19 when he crashed his car, swerving to avoid a badger (typically, he jokes about it: “It’s nuts isn’t it? A bloody badger. I still killed it”), his life changed completely. The teenager had started his own landscape-gardening business, and, according to his now-partner, Loraine, “quite fancied himself” as he strutted around with his top off, “whistling at the ladies”. A keen rugby player and boxer, he had so little experience of disability that he thought everyone who used wheelchairs had been paralysed from birth.
Despite his cheerful nature, he struggled with his situation until a friend who had been paralysed told him he had been skydiving. After that – with help from the Back Up Trust – he became an extreme-sports enthusiast. Along with a team of friends whom he dubbed “Westy’s warriors”, he was pushed and pulled up Ben Nevis in the snow, apparently becoming the first person with such a severe disability to reach the summit, and the first wheelchair user to do it in the snow. He climbed Snowdon several times, became a qualified scuba diver and went on skiing holidays. As a volunteer instructor with Back Up, he led adventure weekends. He even did a skydive – although the first doctor he asked for a medical release form told him that he would be dead before he reached the ground. “I just hoped [he] wasn’t right – all my family were there in case he was!” he explains in the film.
But when his body had been through so much already, why take such risks? For a start, he says, it’s the adrenaline rush. “The first thing I did was abseiling – and it was terrifying. They lowered me over the cliff in my chair, head first. I was saying: ‘My God!’ Don’t let go!’” But, he says, “doing stuff I did not think I could do” boosted his confidence in all parts of his life, making even everyday chores such as getting dressed easier for him. In the film, he says happily: “When you feel the adrenaline in your head and heart, you begin to think you can do anything.”
Now, he says he has more or less “retired” from extreme sports to concentrate on his family and his art. He has recently become one of just 36 registered mouth-and-foot-painting artists in the UK and is hoping to earn a living through his pictures. But, he says, he could not resist joining the group to encourage others. “I wanted to show other people that you just need confidence and self-esteem – and you can do it. We all need a boot up the backside sometimes, whether you are disabled or not.”
Looking back, he says, his physical problems have changed his character for the better. “I think it has made me more patient and more thoughtful. I care more about other people’s feelings now. If I see someone succeed, I feel more excited for them. I was really willing the group on.”
For Gemma, a 31-year-old from Liverpool, who contracted Guillain-Barré syndrome in 2011 and now uses a wheelchair, West made a big impression. In the film, we meet her first as she is cheerfully refusing to let anyone help her push her wheelchair on the beach, or later to help her get on to her modified water ski, admitting to the camera: “I hate asking for help.”
The former cabin-crew worker tells me she decided to take part because “I had had taken away from me all the things I loved doing – being cabin crew and dancing. I wanted to flip things on my body to see what I could do.”
But, she says, she was soon struggling to cope alone during the week away from her family, despite her physical confidence growing with each challenge. Looking back, she says it was the crisis she needed to confront the changes in her life. Through spending time with a group of fearless, funny people with disabilities, she realised relying on others did not have to be a sign of weakness or a cause for embarrassment.
“I didn’t realise it before I went on the trip, but although I had got on with my life, I had just pushed [my disability] to the back of my mind.
“I used to talk about the ‘old’ me and the ‘new’ me – as though I had two lives. I didn’t feel like they properly merged, until last year. People said I was brave, but I actually hadn’t dealt with any of it. In fact, I opened up to the camera more than I had opened up to my family.”
In a particularly poignant moment, Gemma explains to the group that, because she insisted on relying on crutches rather than using her wheelchair, she had damaged her spine and permanently injured herself further.
Now, she says, in spite of being in constant pain and having problems with walking, she has never been happier. Despite being fit and healthy before her illness, she struggled with body image issues. “I was very superficial,” she says. “It’s hard to admit that about yourself. I wasn’t content.”
Since her illness, she has met and moved in with her partner. She is proud to model for a diverse modelling agency and no longer focuses on her perceived imperfections. “Before this happened I was always trying to be skinny; now I have lumps and bumps, but I am proud of my body and what it has got me through. I am happy.”
• Disabled Daredevils is on Tuesday 30 August at 11.05pm on Channel 4