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True to her dream

19 April 2013

Wendy Bryant on a calling pursued

So Many Everests: From cerebral palsy to casualty consultant
Diana and Victoria Webster
Lion £8.99
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VICTORIA - known to her family as Spratty - was born in 1965 to British parents working in Finland.

The book begins with a fairly disturbing account of her birth and first few weeks (her mother, Diana, is not allowed to hold her for several weeks), and it is only when Victoria is two years old that her parents are informed that she has cerebral palsy.

Attending a Steiner school allows Victoria to learn at her own pace and to "follow her dreams". At the age of 11, Victoria decides that she wants to become a doctor, and the rest of the story relates to how she does indeed achieve this, unlikely though it seems to family, friends, and teachers.

Victoria takes up her story when she travels from Helsinki to Stockholm, to start her medical training at the prestigious Karolinska Institute, and relates the many years of training, travelling, and hard work which lead to her qualification of specialist in A&E medicine, the first in Scandinavia.

This book could easily be seen as just one more in a long line of stories of people with disabilities triumphing over adversity to achieve their dreams. Yet it is as much about the way in which we judge people by appearances, and discriminate on the basis of our perceptions; and this is clearly a message that still needs to be heard.

Supported by friends and family, Victoria's dogged determination to achieve is threatened only by her lack of self-belief, which stems from the prejudice and bullying that she experiences from school through to medical school, from children, teachers, and tutors alike. Her parents' reluctance to report this bullying provides an interesting reflection in Diana's story. Although some possible reasons are discussed, no conclusion is reached about why this is.

The stories of both mother and daughter are heart-warming, personal, and honest. Slightly disconcerting is the consistent use of the word "handicap", long since rejected by most in the field of disability as unacceptable, in view of its association with the phrase "cap in hand", from the times when many disabled people could earn their living only through begging.

This is simple storytelling, and yet perhaps all the more powerful for that. The basics of prejudice and discrimination have not changed over the years, and we have not yet succeeded in eradicating them from our society, despite the best efforts of legislation. Diana observes that attitudes to disability are changed by education and example; and Victoria has proved this by her own remarkable achievement.

Wendy Bryant is disability adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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