How the Duke of Edinburgh Award changed a young disabled woman’s life
A young disabled woman has taken on a life-changing challenge and grown in confidence after completing her Duke of Edinburgh award- complete with a trip to Buckingham Palace.
Georgia Hill, a 21 year old wheelchair user from Eastbourne, never thought she’d be able to complete the Duke of Edinburgh (DofE) Award. She lives with spina bifida, a condition which occurs when a baby’s spine doesn’t properly develop in the womb, and hydrocephalus, a dangerous build-up of fluid in a baby’s brain which can, amongst other symptoms, cause problems walking in later life. As a result, the thought of a such a long and gruelling expedition seemed impossible for someone with her specific needs.
She said: “When I first started hearing about DofE, it was mainly because my friends were doing it.
“I’d hear about their plans to do different expeditions and I thought ‘that’s just something I wouldn’t be able to do at all’.”
A few years later, however, and she’s done exactly that. Last spring, she joined all the other members of her expedition in Buckingham Palace to collect her Gold DofE award, the highest award on the scheme.
To earn it, Georgia had to complete a physical activity, learn a new skill, volunteer with the community and embark on a four-day canal boat trip up the Kennet and Avon Canal.
She and her team were entirely self-sufficient: expected to pack, carry and cook their own food, navigate their boat and operate the canal locks along the way.
Though obviously challenging, the trip was an eye-opening experience for Georgia, one which has changed the way she thinks about herself, her hobbies and her disability.
She said: “Doing the gold really made a difference in my concept of being independent.
“It made me able to understand what requirements I need and be able to manage them myself.
“To ask for help when I need it, on my own terms. That kind of independence really made a difference.”
Though Georgia completed the expedition independently, she attributes a lot of her success to the Sussex Association of Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus (SASBAH), which represents and supports people with Georgia’s conditions.
The charity provided her with a mountain trike chair for her bronze expedition, offered support, and made sure her gold expedition took place on a wheelchair-friendly canal boat, all options Georgia didn’t even know were available to her.
She said: “Being able to do those things really changed the game for me. I didn’t even think it would be possible.”
The award scheme is more than just an expedition - it also gave Georgia a chance to explore one of her many passions: DJing. To complete her skills section, Georgia volunteered with the radio station at Eastbourne DGH. She had the chance to entertain patients at her local hospital. She felt a sense of satisfaction in helping patients through their sometimes long, difficult, days of healing.
She said: “I’m helping people who aren’t in the best situation right now and I think that’s something I get the most joy out of.”
Georgia’s work with Radio DGH has also helped her conquer her anxiety, a condition she shares with one in nine young people in the UK.
She said: “I will always be nervous to go on air every week, but it conquers that because, you know, I’m talking to people that I don’t know. I don’t even get to see them, but I still manage to do it and I like to think I’m good at it, I like to think I entertain.”
Georgia is also an avid supporter of The Experience List: a list of character building activities that, according to the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, every teenager should have a chance to take part in before they leave school. The list, which includes activities like campaigning for a personal belief and learning a new language, is inspired by a series of surveys which suggest 44% of teenagers think they have not had enough opportunities to develop their confidence, resilience or independence.
Though Georgia completed her award before The Experience List launch, she can’t help but feel it has helped her meet most, if not all of the criteria. She said; “Going back over my time on the scheme, I can definitely tick off at least half of the experiences on there, if not more than that. Half from, say DofE directly- one of the entries is work experience and I can tick that off from doing my radio skill with Radio DGH- but also more than half I can cover from the way it’s changed me as a person.”
Now, equipped with a degree in Multimedia Broadcast Journalism from the University of Brighton, Georgia’s world is whatever she wants to make it.
Though she continues to volunteer with Radio DGH and would love to take it forward into paid work, she’s keeping her options open, happy to see what life presents.
She said: “It’s changed my life in many ways - both physically and mentally - it will always be something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”