The many sides of Fe
Often the first thing people see when they meet 23-year-old Fe Jacobs is her disability. She just wishes it wasn’t all they see.
The second-year occupational therapy student was born with spina bifida. She’s enrolled at Otago Polytechnic but attends classes at Wintec in Hamilton. It’s close enough to walk, says Fe.
Of course, when Fe says “walk”, she really means she makes the trip there and back in her wheelchair.
“I walk to tech – I mean I use a wheelchair, but I call it walking. It’s my version of walking when I use a wheelchair. It’s my legs while I’m in it”
Not many nine-year olds dream of a career in neuro-developmental physiotherapy. When Fe was told her physical disability would make working as a physiotherapist difficult, she decided to follow a career in occupational therapy instead.
She’s half way through a bachelor’s degree and is already planning to continue study so she can specialise in orthotics.
“I wear ankle-foot orthotics myself, that’s why I’m interested in it.”
They’re not your usual orthotics though – they fit underneath a pair of boots that make Fe look as if she just got off the back of a motorbike.
Fe was approached to take part in the Question Time after volunteering in an administration role at Life Unlimited Charitable Trust.
The series of videos made in partnership between Life Unlimited and Attitude were created so disabled people could tell their stories.
“I like the idea of people knowing things, being more knowledgeable about why people are the way they are,” says Fe.
She discussed the idea with her mum and decided it was also a good opportunity to talk about some of the issues wheelchair users face every day that Fe finds frustrating, like the assumptions people make.
“You can’t just see someone in a wheelchair and assume they have intellectual difficulties. I just don’t understand it really.”
Fe’s also fiercely protective of her independence – and her personal space.
“One day it was raining and I was going up a slight hill and someone just decided I needed help. They started grabbing at my wheelchair, which scared me. It made me feel uneasy.”
As Fe explains, the wheelchair is her legs – an extension of her body – so having someone touch it without her permission feels like assault.
Answering frank questions about life and disability in front of the camera for Question Time didn’t faze Fe.
“I kind of forgot it was there. I was just having a conversation with the person that was texting me. Yes, there was a camera, but I was just having a conversation.”
Some people may be surprised to learn that although the final Question Time video is just four minutes long, the original interview took over two hours. Fe is glad the final cut includes her talking about how much her mum has done for her.
Fe calls her mum her biggest “advocate, motivator, support”.
“She was very motivated for me to be the best I could be.
“Everything she did in the first 18 months of my life set me on the path for the rest of my life. There are no words to describe the impact she’s had on my life.”
That includes beginning physiotherapy at just one week old so Fe might learn to walk – even though there was no guarantee it would work.
It took four and a half years for Fe to take her first steps.
She says walking takes a lot of energy and she can’t walk everywhere, so for much of her day she uses a wheelchair.
“But the fact that I can walk at all is all due to my mum.”
Like many tertiary students, Fe’s still living at home and she appreciates the support of family. But the way Fe says she’s “not independent at the moment” or “I don’t drive yet” gives every indication those milestones are very much on the agenda.
On her Question Time video, Fe says having spina bifida is “one part of Fe”.
“Sometimes people see the wheelchair and my spina bifida – and that’s all they see.”
She wants people to see the other parts of Fe – the daughter, the student, the artist, the future occupational therapist.
For more information about spina bifida, visit Spina Bifida Association New Zealand, a non-profit organisation dedicated to supporting parents of children, young adults and adults living with spina bifida.