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Giving disabled people a sporting chance

Image caption Jonathan Bell first played Nessad Causevic in the table tennis finals 15 years ago

As part of the Access All Areas series, the BBC's Jonathan Bell, a former soldier who was paralysed in a training accident, looks at the role sport can play in rehabilitating those who become disabled in adulthood.

Driving along the roads on my way back to Stoke Mandeville hospital after 15 years I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable, almost nervous.

Back then I was taking part in the Inter-Spinal Unit Games at the hospital's Guttman centre.

I was near the end of what seemed like a very long hospital stay at Pinderfields hospital in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, about eight months of rehabilitation after an injury in the Army which had left me paralysed.

I'd been training with my infantry regiment, in preparation for deployment to Bosnia. On a night patrol, a vehicle had driven through my foot patrol, injuring 15 soldiers.

I had been chosen with others from my spinal unit to travel down to Stoke Mandeville and take part in a sports competition.

It seemed like a big deal - it was our first "outing" as newly rehabbed wheelchair users. It was also the first time that I'd seen so many other newly injured people competing in sports.

Lucky to be alive

I made it to the finals of the table tennis - I was up against Nessad Causevic, a Bosnian policeman paralysed by shrapnel in a rocket attack.

It was an exciting match. Very quickly, friendly banter was replaced by grim determination as we battled hard for each point. This was competitive sport and I lapped it up, eventually winning a very tight match.

Elsewhere in the stadium others were competing in their own disciplines.

Returning to the Guttman centre - now known as the Stoke Mandeville Stadium - once again and meeting Nessad, we reminisced and were able to talk about how sport helped redefine perceptions of ourselves.

Like me, Nessad felt lucky to be alive but had also struggled with becoming a wheelchair user.

No longer tall and physically fit in the usual sense, we had to make sense of this and how we viewed our new physical selves. We did that with the help of sport.

Dot Tussler, a senior physiotherapist at the spinal unit at Stoke Mandeville, says the benefits of sport go well beyond the obvious health implications.

"Yes, it improves fitness and stamina, and helps develop better wheelchair skills, all of which are transferable to other areas of life."

But being involved in sports, she says, may also make you sharper and more confident and, if you can compete in sport, then you can compete elsewhere, or get a job.

"There's also an important social element to sport - responsibility to the team and meeting new people," she added.

'Common goal'

For today's injured soldiers there is more on offer. At the Ministry of Defence's rehabilitation centre at Headley Court, in Surrey, competitive sport plays a central role in rehab.

In 2008 a project called Battle Back was set up specifically to use sport and adventure training to help soldiers back to fitness and help improve their self-confidence, whatever their injuries.

"Soldiers are naturally competitive," said Warrant Officer Spencer Norman, from Battle Back. "They all want to beat the guy next to them."

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Media captionJonathan Bell meets L/Cpl Tyler Christopher and Sgt Duncan Slater at Headley Court in Surrey

The organisers of Battle Back have been quick to tap in to this competitive quality.

They want to introduce soldiers to a range of sports, and those who demonstrate exceptional ability in particular sporting disciplines are introduced to disability sports organisations, always keen to spot new talent.

I met two soldiers who had lost limbs in Afghanistan, Sgt Duncan Slater, 31, and L/Cpl Tyler Christopher, 26. Both are double amputees as a result of bomb blasts and both are new members of the Great Britain sled hockey squad.

Duncan said: "When you're part of a team, whatever team, it's not about what body parts you're missing - it's about what you can bring to the team. There's a common goal - to win."

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