Exaggerating Thusha’s disability

Picture of Thusha Kamaleswaran, a 7-year-old South Asian girl, being pushed in a wheelchair (to school) by her father, a South Asian man in his 30s.The BBC recently conducted another ‘exclusive’ interview with the family of Thusha Kamaleswaran, the (then) 5-year-old Tamil girl shot and paralysed in a gang-related incident in south London last year. There is a written version of it here and a video news report here, although the latter contains an awful lot of back-story about the shooting rather than present-day interviews with Thusha and her family. The BBC also provided a link to the Thusha Fund’s website, which is run by members of the Trident division of the Metropolitan Police (which investigated this shooting as it was related to violence within the Black community) and exists to raise money for Thusha’s care. This raises some concern as I believe the website contains inaccuracies and exaggerations of Thusha’s level of disability.

This page on the website explains the story of how she was paralysed and what they say her needs are:

On 29th March 2011, Thusha was playing in her uncle’s shop in Stockwell, south London, dancing and skipping around like any other playful 5 year old when a group of three local men, trying to shoot a rival gang member, fired indiscriminately into the shop. One of the shots hit Thusha, the bullet entering her chest, and shattering the seventh vertebra of her spine, paralysing her from the chest downwards and leaving her close to death. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time changed her life forever.

Since then, Thusha has undergone numerous medical procedures to treat her injuries and although she has made substantial progress, medical opinion is that she will not walk again. She will therefore need full time specialist care and support for the rest of her life.

I have highlighted what I believe to be the two main inaccuracies here. First is the reference to the “seventh vertebra of her spine”. The actual seventh vertebra is the seventh cervical vertebra or C7, which is near the bottom of the neck. Thusha’s injury was at the seventh thoracic or chest vertebra or T7. This results in a much lower level of disability: she will have impaired feeling and movement from the mid-chest down, have problems with her bladder and bowels (requiring either pads or a catheter, depending on exactly what the problem is — either incontinence or over-continence), and reduced enjoyment of sex as an adult (although her ability to reproduce would be unaffected). A person with a C7 injury would be paralysed from the upper chest down, be unable to regulate their body temperature, be vulnerable to autonomic dysreflexia, an extremely painful and life-threatening blood pressure disorder, and have impaired arm and hand function. While this detail may have seemed pedantic when it appeared in a newspaper, I believe it is significant when it appears on a fund-raising website.

The second inaccuracy is that she will need full-time specialist care for life, which a person with a T7 injury, particularly an adult, typically does not. They may require some support with washing, but as her arms are unaffected, she will be able to do anything that can be done sitting down. Full-time care is typically provided to quadriplegics, those with reduced (or absent) arm function, particularly those who are on ventilators whose life depends on the equipment continuing to function properly. While such people are usually able to speak and can operate a computer with their voice and (usually) their head, anything you need arms to do, someone else has to do, such as make them a drink (or a meal) and wash them. I know someone who has a C1 injury and is on a ventilator, and she has a team of nurses and a personal assistant and is never left alone — someone is either in the room or the next room all the time. This is not the case with a paraplegic with a T7 injury, who can move their arms and hands freely.

Thusha will need a wheelchair, or rather a succession of them as she grows up (and some of them give out, as they are often of poor construction). As can be seen in recent media footage, she needs back and leg braces and may well need pads or catheters (those details, obviously, are not made public), which are provided by the NHS; the wheelchairs are either partly or wholly funded, but extra funding can help buy a lighter chair which is easier for the user to push. She will also need a house that is adapted for her needs (presently, there is a ramp in and out of the house but she has to be carried to and from her bedroom as it is upstairs and there is no stair-lift). She will need regular medical attention to check scoliosis and kidney function. She will not need round-the-clock personal care or a high-end electric wheelchair, though. She may well become almost entirely independent as a teen or adult.

Her needs are not extreme and many of them will be met by the state. There are many other people out there, including children, with severe disabilities whose needs are only partly met and who are really struggling because there is no headline-grabbing tragic shooting, so they will not be eligible for criminal injuries compensation and no team of police officers with ready access to the BBC is raising money for them. They struggle to get adequate wheelchairs, speech equipment (Thusha can speak perfectly well) and sufficient quantities of nappies, and often have to struggle to get their children into the right school. If you were planning to donate to Thusha’s fund, I suggest splitting the money with a mainstream disability charity, such as Whizz Kidz, which provides specialised wheelchairs for children with severe needs (the Thusha Fund’s links do not include any British disability charity, only the US-based Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and the Stoke Mandeville hospital which is state-funded). This could have become an opportunity to raise awareness of the needs of the families of people with severe disabilities, especially in a time of recession and budget cuts (which affect charities as many of them are dependent on government grants); instead, the focus has gone on one high-profile crime victim with a pretty face and moderate needs.

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