Discover the world

Whenever she was challenged in her life, she always got back up again. Now she explores the world to make sure wheelchair users can travel freely.

My name is Sonja Häsler. I’m 42 years old, Swiss, living in Basel. I’m a Bank Business Management Assistant by profession but working in a travel agency, speaking German, English, French, Swedish and a little bit Spanish. For me, sports have always been a kind of lifeblood and in many respects crucial in my life.

I grew up in the Bernese Oberland, in the heart of the Alps. Some people always said, that I was born with skis on my feet and a backpack on my back... Until I was 19 years old, I did first art gymnastics and then athletics as a competitive sport, but suddenly, my life changed completely: I had to give up all these sports due to a skiing accident with injuries to my legs in 1996. Unfortunately I wasn’t very lucky with my treating doctors.

Exactly ten years and twenty-five surgeries later, it looked like my life would become a bit normal again. But only few months later, in June 2005 I suffered another accident in a strength training room, where a 35 kilograms metal equipment felt on my head and caused a traumatic brain trauma and spinal strain. Once again, I was at the wrong time at the wrong place! Since then I’m sitting in a wheelchair, but I know that I was lucky in this misfortune, because the consequences of the accident could have been even worse as I was very close to get quadriplegic!

I have still not given up: In the same year, I started my competitive career in wheelchair badminton with my first big victory in mixed doubles in the 2010 European Championships. One year later in 2011, I became world champion in wheelchair badminton doubles!

My second passion is travelling and I’m glad to work for a Swiss travel and sport agency of the largest association of and for people with disabilities in Switzerland. If a person with a disability comes to us planning a city trip for instance to London, I can recommend hotels and provide advice based on my own experience, for example with public transportation. This service, which directly benefits other people with handicap, is something that I particularly enjoy in my work.

Born fighter – the will to get back up

Making things work

I’ve always had a fighting spirit, but what really helped me to restart my life in a wheelchair was sports! I love being in sports halls. I like their smell, their noise … and I really miss them a lot, when I'm prevented from training there.

Picture taken by Herbert Rongen

The only sensation I experienced from my body during that time was pain, just pain. I never had had such a pain in my life before, even not after all the hard training camps I had participated in all the years before. This time the pain was different and I wanted to challenge it, to find out what I could do against it. Very often I was training alone, in a dark corner where nobody could see me, trying things out and sometimes I even had to lie a little bit, when my treating doctor asked me about how I got all these blues and hematoma on my body... Probably not all exercises were the best choice for treating and healing my body – but yes, the best for my soul! Because this soul wanted to be treated as well!  

I realized that my rehabilitation and my way back to normality would be different to most others. But I did not let myself be irritated and continued pursuing my path. I struggled many times and I still do sometimes. I have learned to accept my limitations but I also to push a bit further!

 

It’s been a long way back to work, back to living alone in my apartment, being autonomous again. Sometimes it was tough and challenging, sometimes easier with new interesting experiences, sometimes just boring. But isn’t that life? Isn’t that normal? What is normal? Everything that seemed to be normal in my life wasn’t normal anymore after this accident. But now, exactly fourteen years later, my daily life is normal and everything that was before the accident, was different. I’ve got other skills, other optics and I’ve learned to accept the situation. Wow, I have had the chance to get some kind of additional experience! Not too bad! But sometimes, situations turn to unlucky happenings and I get angry or even sad. I will tell you about that tomorrow.

Home alone – a new experience

Challenging daily life

Being at the rehab clinic, everybody wishes moving home again as soon as possible. So did I, even though I was still scared of certain situations. Plenty hours of different therapies prepared me to make this important step and I felt ready to (re)start my private life. But as I learned later on, this was one of the biggest errors in my life!

Home alone, everything seemed to be completely different. The first days were really tough and I am glad that I had not been aware of that before. I had no “back-up”, nobody I could call to help me immediately! A small step suddenly seemed like a huge hurdle. All the supporting aids /facilities at home were installed differently. Hence, a “simple” transfer in the bathroom ended up in a disaster due to a differently positioned grab bar… and my family lives far away. The independence I had fought for was suddenly not worth anything. The first weeks, I still had to stay at my former flat, which was at the first floor, without elevator. 

Twice a week, I got picked up to “freedom”, so that I could go to the therapy. This time-slots needed to be very well prepared.

I'll never forget the situation I found myself in because I had forgotten to bring a birthday card to the post office: I ended up staring through the (too high) window of my flat, hoping that someone would come along the street and accept to come up to my flat to take the letter – not easy at all to convince someone as several people were afraid to end up in a trap! Happy incognito city-life...

These were the days at the beginning, my life isn’t that crazy anymore. But silly things still happen regularly! For example: sitting ready to have a shower in a hotel room and then realizing, that the shower head hangs unreachable at the top of the slide bar. One of my favorite situations: The light in the toilet switches on automatically – and obviously also switches off after a certain time. The time in which the light shines is simply too short, I know it is to save energy. But to sit in the dark, because the motion detector is located in the vestibule... My solution: always having a headlight with me!

Finding solutions: Often there are simple and quick solutions, but they do not always meet the norm... 

On the road – with a little help from some friends

Helping hands all the time

When I was a child, I have been dreaming of having my own gymnastic hall instead of a common girls-room, which I even had to share with my elder sister! This dream hasn’t got exactly true up to day, but I am still working on it! But I was already very creative as child...

I remember my mother getting angry when I repurposed the living room as a gym again and again. My daddy saved the house peace the day he came home with some old mattresses. From this day on, our cellar had another function: my private gym!

In wintertime, I spent all my free time on skis. First experiences on the snow happened at the very small private hill in front of our house. I had to learn to stand up by myself, to walk uphill with strapped skis without any help. At that time, I had no idea, that these simple and basic activities – learning to stand up again and to walk – would once have another meaning for me, the key to an independent life after my accident!

I had to stand up, to push forward beside of my handicap. First, I only saw problems in each situation, in each stair! I had to accept that I was reliant on help again, just as I used to be as a kid. This wasn’t funny at all!

Additionally, I had to accept that persons as my medical assistant interfered in my intimate life, asking me questions about things which I wasn't ready to talk about yet as too early after my accident. But there was no escape – I had to face this new situation!

In my life interpersonal relationships and social activities suddenly took on a very different meaning: I had to find people, who were not only willing to spend their leisure time with me, but also to help me in certain situations as being in a narrow toilet room, at a mountain restaurant, to lift me into a canoe or to push me uphill… in short, so I could pursue these activities and enjoy my leisure time!

I need helping hands all the time... without them I could never attend all the events that I’m attending to, I couldn't take all the opportunities the way I do. I would have a lot less quality of life, experiences and crazy moments!

And to my surprise: all the volunteers and friends who have tried hard to give me these most beautiful moments of my life thank me later almost exuberantly how beautiful the experience with me was. I still believe, it's more up to me to thank them for their help, but even managers can apparently learn from my situation, which is only great! So, nothing is impossible! Let’s try to do it and to try it together!

No borders, no boundaries – travelling the world

Discovering the world in a wheel chair

Laying in the hospital right after the accident, I had plenty of time, to think about all things that will be different or even impossible in my future. One of my biggest preoccupations was that I could no longer pursue my urge to discover the world. I felt very, very sad...

You probably can't even imagine what meant to me, when a travel catalogue for disabled people suddenly came into my hands: Weekends in the mountains, beach vacations, roundtrips in several countries – all this should really be possible, even for me as wheelchair user?!? This catalogue became a kind of survival guide for me, which helped me, to recover as quickly as possible and at the very end, I knew it by heart. I had no doubt that soon I would participate in one of their organized travels! It took me longer than expected, but finally I not only booked holidays with them, I also had the chance to integrate the company as travel specialist and hotel tester. For me this job means that I can combine my personal experience as wheel chair user with one of the greatest hobbies you can imagine and even help other disabled persons to spend great holidays!

Many aspects relative to organizing holidays and travelling around the world are different since I am in the wheelchair. This is by no means meant to sound negative, because you experience certain adventures precisely because you are in a wheelchair. However, you have to be prepared for everything and therefore be extremely flexible and spontaneous – by the way, this also applies to your escorts! Obstacles of many kinds: Steep stairs as the only way to take, too much snow at narrow cottage entrances…

Regarding hotels, I don’t know, how often it happens, that there are stairs on the way going to the hotel room or not enough space between wall and bed to pass through or an extremely narrow bathroom, which makes it impossible to go to the toilet... And this is why my record as hotel tester is so important: On the one hand to talk to the hotel responsible so that they have the chance to change it, on the other hand to fill all these details in the agency’s database to avoid troubles to future guests.

 

Concerning the luggage, you can probably imagine, that with all the medical stuff you need to take with you, it’s essential to prepare the suitcase very smart. I am very happy, that B. Braun developed the “Actreen® Mini”- range, a very cool and especially small catheter, top for limited space in the luggage!

Through my international sports competitions, as well as other normal holiday trips, I have already visited 33 countries, 22 of them in wheelchairs. My favourite country is Sweden, which in my opinion is extremely handicap friendly. One of the biggest highlights on other continents were Machu Picchu in Peru, the mountain scenery in Colorado and Guatemala as well as several places in the south of Australia. In each country I could learn plenty of things. I guess that travelling around and seeing other cultures is one of the best education you can get. And all these experiences will last for ever and it doesn’t matter, weather you do it on your own feet or in a wheelchair. Just do it and never forget that “Don’t go – doesn’t exist”! Have a good trip! Happy holidays!