When he was just 15, Santiago Fori fell from a climbing frame in his local park and smashed the C4 cervical vertebrae in his neck – an accident that left him a quadriplegic: in a wheelchair, struggling to breathe and with no use of his arms or legs. Since then, his recovery has astounded his doctors and he has just completed the Travel and Tourism – Level 3 Extended Diploma course at Westminster Kingsway College.
After three years at the college, he is preparing to move on, find work and provide vital support and guidance to other people who are in his situation. Recently, he took time out to chat to us about his journey so far and what he wants to do in the future.
When he started at the college, Santiago was just 16 years old and was still coming to terms with his injuries. “On my first day at the college, I guess I was a bit nervous” he told us. “I didn’t know what it would be like and if people would be OK with me. It helped a bit that I already had a friend at the college, but I was still nervous.”
He needn’t have worried. His fellow students and the staff team at our Victoria Centre proved to be very welcoming. “I have had a good three years here, but I think that the highlight for me has been that my classmates have treated me with respect and just the same as the other students.” He is full of praise for his teachers too: “Anything I have needed or questions I’ve had, they have always helped me or answered.”
His own positive attitude has helped too. Jo-Ann Stephens, Santiago’s Travel and Tourism lecturer, said: “As soon as he started on his level 2 course, Santi’s charisma and self-determination became apparent. He set his personal standards in relation to his qualification high, and has always been very keen to take part in all college activities. He is a popular young man with his peers because of his personality and wit, not because he is in a wheelchair.”
And now, armed with new skills and confidence from three years’ studying at WestKing, Santiago is really positive about the future, and, most importantly, he has choices and options for what he will do next. “I am looking for work at the moment. I would love to work in accessibility or disability jobs – I looked at a job at Tottenham Hotspur FC – and I am going to start volunteering at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, where I go for some treatments and work out at the gym there.
“The hospital wants to offer more support and guidance to people who’ve recently become disabled and they asked me if I could help out. It’s a new thing for the hospital – there was no-one like that who was there for me when I had my accident – so I am looking forward to being the first person doing this.”
Santiago works out at the hospital’s gym, to boost his strength, which is slowly returning (unusually for someone who has broken their C4 cervical vertebrae, he has a little bit of movement in his shoulders and wrists) and he is looking to get a fitness instructor qualification, so he can be a personal trainer to other quadriplegics. Despite his injuries, he says he feels fortunate: “Most people with my injury wouldn’t be able to move their arms or legs at all, so I feel lucky in a way.” His Christian faith has given him a lot of strength too.
Jo-Ann sums up Santiago’s time with us: “During his three years with us, Santi has become an inspiration to all who met him as he accepted and adapted to his life, not letting his disability hinder his future. We will never forget him and know that one day we will hear that he has achieved something fantastic.”
Santiago feels that the college was a very welcoming place for him and says he would recommend the college to other disabled people. Many other students also tell us that we offer a safe and welcoming place for all students – whatever their age, ethnicity or disability.