Karen proves that disability is no bar to flying high

Karen with other scholarship applicants at RAF Cranwell
Karen with other scholarship applicants at RAF Cranwell

A MORAY RAF WIFE, leading fundraiser for the RAF Benevolent Fund and recognised by many as a tireless campaigner who drives on others to achieve the apparently impossible, is about to embark on her very own ‘mission impossible’.

For Karen Cox simply accepting that she has her own physical limitations has been a personal battle, seeing her fibromyalgia and joint hypermobility syndrome issues as minor compared to the physically obvious disabilities of those she has come into contact with during her fundraising efforts.

It was only when meeting and working with a fellow fundraiser, Sean Allerton, that Karen began to understand more about the way others see their own disabilities – and how they deal with the way they are perceived in their daily lives.

“It was in April 2015 that Sean, a tetraplegic, told me about Flying Scholarships for Disabled People, how he had been awarded a scholarship and the fantastic time he had learning to fly as a result,” Karen explained.

She added: “He encouraged me to apply – but I was reluctant. It was not learning to fly that was the problem – Sean was disabled, clearly, he was paralyzed and in a wheelchair. By comparison my disabilities were minor, I figured I was just not disabled enough.

“Sean did not give up, telling me about the selection process and how the entire experience had helped him. But while accepting I had a disability, I had a wheelchair for the more difficult times, I had adaptations to my home to make life easier when I was ill, comparing myself with people like Sean just did not seem right somehow.”

All the same, Karen decided to fill in the Flying Scholarships for Disabled People’s application form while continuing to question if hers was a valid disability, worrying that she might be removing a chance of winning a place for someone who was “really disabled”.

She sent in the application feeling confident only that it would be rejected – and continued to get through her day to day life in “the warm comfort zone of Lossiemouth”. In January this year, however, she received a letter accepting her application – and an invitation to attend a selection process at RAF Cranwell.

Karen said: “This was very scary – I was to spend three days on my own amongst 18 strangers, trying to convince people that I was worthy of this scholarship.

“Was I? I still believed that the answer was no, here I was amongst people with missing limbs, or who had clear physical disabilities or people who had been through mental illness. I was just in pain, tired and very foggy.

“But I went through the process, had a medical, told them about myself and my life, demonstrated that I could climb in and out of an aircraft safely and took the test that I had been struggling to ‘revise’ for.

“Those three days among incredible people taught me a lot about myself, I came away understanding I was unlikely to get a scholarship but with a very new understanding of what ‘disabled’ actually meant.”

Karen and some of her RAFBF fundraisers
Karen (front row, second from right) and some of her RAFBF fundraisers

Karen returned to Moray with the courage to face up to her difficulties in public, using her mobility scooter locally and learning, above all, that it was OK to class herself as ‘disabled’, she was not stealing anything away from anyone else but merely accepting her situation as it was and adapting accordingly.

Then came another surprise, as Karen explained: “Three days after returning home the phone rang and I waited for the gentle let down and explanation as to why this scholarship wasn’t for me. I still felt that others were more deserving, not because of my disability level, but just because I would never expect to be given such an opportunity.

“The principal stated aims of FSDP are to relieve the condition of, and improve the quality of life of, disabled people by helping them to discover their true potential through the mental and physical stimulation of learning to fly a light aircraft.

“It’s not about how disabled someone is, it’s about what that person will get out of the scholarship. For me, that wasn’t the physical act of learning to fly, it was overcoming my fear of being without my support network, it was about the fear of not being able to learn and about rediscovering a person I used to be – before the pain and fatigue took over and that is what I had told them.

“So they chose me! I couldn’t believe it – me! The RAF Charitable Trust are paying for me to learn to fly down at Bristol in June. I still can’t believe and perhaps I will still be pinching myself when I am presented with my Scholarship at the Royal International Air Tattoo on July 10 by the Prince of Jordan.”

Then to the future for Karen – what will the entire experience give her?

She said: “That it would hopefully give me the courage to drive again, to feel confident enough in myself to go out alone again and to show me that I wasn’t useless and I could actually still learn!”

To find out more about Flying Scholarships for the Disabled, which is available to people from all walks of life and is not restricted to those with RAF connections, visit their website at http://fsfdp.org.uk/.