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A designer gets to grips with disability

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Daniel Brown refuses to let paralysis depress him. In fact, says Marisol Grandón, his work has taken him in a new direction

Daniel Brown is unhappy with his wheelchair. A £2,000 bespoke titanium chair is being manufactured for him but the process takes six weeks. The temporary chair is hard to manoeuvre, clunky and, most disappointing for the Prada-clad designer, it doesn’t look cool.

Today, Brown, 26, is attending the opening of the Designer of the Year exhibition on the South Bank in London. He is one of the four short-listed nominees and it is his first public appearance for some time, so he is keen to look good.

“This chair over-exaggerates my injury and I’m restricted to friends having to help me to navigate,” he says. “With the new chair, I’ll be able to do that myself.”

Until last summer, Brown was working for the fashion photographer Nick Knight as his multimedia director. As a child, he discovered computers via video games and taught himself how to program. His experimental organic animations for the internet have earned him quiet but consistent praise and have influenced a raft of new designers. One piece of work, the Flower Series, he describes as a “vase of flowers in computer form”.

Last May, Brown was invited to speak at a design conference in Barcelona. One evening, he went out with friends and they decided to go for a swim in the sea. Brown dived into a breaking wave and was dragged underwater. As he floated face down, his friends thought he was joking around.

“I could hear my friends laughing,” he says. “I presumed they had seen me and would be coming to rescue me, but they weren’t. My fear was that I was being dragged out to sea.

“I remember giving up holding my breath and consciously inhaling water. I thought: ‘I’m just going to have to give in to this’.”

When his friends finally realised that he was in trouble, they dragged him to the shore and phoned for an ambulance. At the Hospital del Mar, he underwent emergency surgery to clean up the Vertebrae that had shattered, and for 48 hours, the doctors were not certain that he would survive.

An English-speaking doctor explained to him exactly what had happened.

“When you’re that ill, your body goes into an emergency state,” says Brown. “I was certainly not thinking about the fact I was going to be living in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. It hadn’t occurred to me.”

Brown is paralysed from the upper chest down. He has limited movement in his arms, shoulders and wrists and none in his fingers. To work on his laptop, he wears splint gloves and plastic moulds on his fingertips. Most other tasks are performed for him by a full-time assistant.

An estimated 1,000 people suffer a spinal cord injury in Britain each year. Most affect 16- to 35-year-olds, and are the result of road or sporting accidents. Paralysis occurs because scar tissue on the severed cord prevents new cells from growing.

Three weeks after the accident, Brown’s condition was stable enough for him to be airlifted to Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London. He remained in intensive care for two months. But just when he had started to make progress, excess liquid in his lungs caused his heart to fail and he nearly died.

“My heart stopped for two minutes,” he says. “All the machines started to beep and everything went blank. The next thing I remember is floating through an empty space with lots of stars in it and an overwhelming sense of fear. I awoke with the crash team around me and cables coming out of my arms.”

At the beginning of August, Brown was moved to the National Spinal Injuries Unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, where he has spent the past seven months having physiotherapy, counselling and Occupational Therapy.

Last week, he left hospital and moved into a new flat in Clerkenwell, which has been designed to accommodate wheelchair users.

“The biggest test, and I’m only at that point now, is how you fit back into the community you came from,” he says. “Socially, the reaction I’ve been getting is what I’d hoped for. In London, people are not necessarily interested in other people and, in a funny way, that kind of helps.

“I still don’t know how people are going to react professionally. But from the outset, Nick Knight was a tremendous support. He said: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll give you whatever work you can do.’ And that’s exactly what you need to hear during the bad times. It’s the little things that keep you going.”

Brown’s nomination for Designer of the Year coincided happily with his discharge from Stoke Mandeville. For the exhibition, he has submitted two projections: one that draws an ever-ascending pattern of exploding flowers and another that turns pencilled scribbles into elaborate plants.

“I wrote the doodle piece with the idea that you can play with it and when you’re happy you can say ‘stop’ and create your own T-shirt or bag with the image,” he says. “I create interactive projects to allow people to experiment with visuals, purely for entertainment purposes.”

Working in fashion, Brown is sensitive to the mass of beige equipment that is provided for disabled people. “I hope to be a very fashionable disabled person,” he says.

“In the design world, there are lots of things that would be much nicer if they were white and not beige, or chrome and not blue.

“I feel a responsibility, working in fashion, to be a proponent of that change. With spinal injuries, there’s a perfectly intelligent, normal person who should be treated as such. I hope I can make a difference in that respect.”

Recent developments in stem cell research bring the possibility of finding a cure for spinal cord injuries closer. In January, scientists researching regenerative dentistry managed to use stem cells to grow teeth on mice. Similar technology has been successfully applied to mice and rats with severed spines. But Brown is cautious in his welcome of such progress.

“Stem cell research is an interesting dilemma for anyone with paralysis,” he says.

“In the early days, everyone, from your auntie to your best mate, brings you clippings from newspapers about revolutionary new cures and inventions.

“At Stoke Mandeville, people with brand new injuries would cling to the notice-board dedicated to research, desperately hoping they’d be better soon. But in the end, you have to cast that aside. It will be great when the cure arrives, but I don’t think you can let it rule your life. You have to just get on with things.”

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