‘My disability doesn’t stop me being a thrill-seeker’

Andrew Giffin with Audrey Taylor
Andrew Giffin with Audrey Taylor
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THE pure white snow was crisp and the cool breeze which blew in Andrew Giffin’s face as he careered down the challenging black ski run was fresh and clean.

Around him was breathtaking Austrian mountain scenery. And beneath him the crunch of virgin snow as his skis left snaking parallel curves on the pristine piste.

Andrew Giffin skiing

Andrew Giffin skiing

He was racing down the slope at around 40mph. Just the skis, the speed, and the skier in front, leading Andrew on one of the most thrilling ski runs of his life.

But the black run dash – the kind of adrenalin-fuelled run that would leave any experienced skier gasping for breath – was for Andrew just another action-packed episode in an impressively action-packed life lived, not with debilitating disability, but almost in spite of it.

For while cerebral palsy might have placed the strapping young man in the confines of his motorised wheelchair, what it hasn’t done is prevent him embracing an action man, high-octane lifestyle of speed, danger and thrills.

His list of adventurous activities is exhausting: skiing, diving, hot air ballooning, even gliding. And it couldn’t be further removed from the life of the young soldier, just a year older than Robin, whose ultimate sacrifice on a foreign field 70 years ago, has helped make Andrew’s remarkable achievements possible . . .

“Andrew is amazing,” nods his carer Audrey Taylor, a mum-of-three who works for support organisation the Thistle Foundation and has spent the past eight months working with Andrew, being regularly surprised by the 24-year-old as she tends to his needs at his home in Inverleith.

“It is incredible to see him on his bi-ski. He goes off-piste and does the black runs. His bi-ski is attached to another skier but he has to work at it as well. And the speed he gets to is incredible. There’s no fear.”

She saw it for herself when she accompanied Andrew on a thrilling week in picture pretty Niederau in Austria’s Wildschönau Valley, set between the Kitzbüheler Alps and the Wilder Kaiser Mountains. There Andrew sped down black runs, savoured powdery snow off-piste and then, apres-ski, partied just like all the other skiers and snowboarders at the resort’s nightclubs.

Desperate to enjoy more downhill thrills, he followed that up with a trip north to the Cairngorms to catch the last of the snow there, hooking up his bi-ski once again and embarking on run after run, manoeuvring his head and shoulders the way skiers flex ankles, knees and feet, as he expertly carved his way down the mountainside.

The pictures hanging on the walls of his comfortable ground-floor flat in Kinnear Road reveal skiing – challenging enough as that is – is far from Andrew’s only experience of breathtaking adventure sports.

He may need round-the-clock care and support to help cope with the very basics of day-to-day life, but when it comes to thrill-seeking adrenalin kicks, nothing, it seems, is impossible. One photograph shows him soaring 6500ft above the African savannah in the wicker basket of a hot air balloon. Another has him sailing in the Forth in a two-man canoe.

Under the water, he’s enjoyed snorkelling and, back on dry land, whizzed around Knockhill race track near Dunfermline in a Porsche. Soon he’ll take to the skies again, this time taking off from Edinburgh Airport learning how to fly a glider.

And when he wants to unwind, he steers his motorised wheelchair to his favourite club, Mood, at Greenside Place, relaxes at nearby Walkabout or nips along to the cinema or a pop concert. Of course for any typical 24-year-old, none of that would be terribly remarkable. But for Andrew, whose brain and nervous system have been affected since birth by his condition, every day poses challenges that require constant help and endless support.

And it’s support which is rooted in an organisation which evolved around the tragic fate of another young man, only a year older than Andrew.

The Thistle Foundation was launched in 1944 by Sir Francis Tudsbery and his wife Lady Isabella who had set up home at Champfleurie House and estate near Linlithgow, back when their son, Robin, was just a toddler.

The family had watched First World War servicemen returning from the front, battle-weary, injured and often in dire circumstances, and pledged to try to help. As they waved Robin off to do his own war duty, the couple busied themselves planning what would become the Thistle Foundation.

But while Britain celebrated the ceasefire in May 1945, terrible news arrived at Champfleurie – confirmation that Robin, 25, had been killed, one of the war’s last victims, when his armoured car was blown up crossing a bridge in north-east Germany.

The grieving couple pushed on with their plans and created homes for ex-servicemen in a 22-acre site in Craigmillar. At its heart was a stunning memorial to their son, Robin Chapel. Every detail is a reminder of his brief life – down to candlesticks and the cross on the altar cast from melted silver taken from his personal possessions to the carvings of animals and birds reflecting his love of nature. Today it is a war memorial and a listed building.

But while the chapel is a touching reminder of a life cut short, Andrew, as he careers down the ski slope or sails high into the sky in a hot air balloon is a poignant modern example of how to live life – whatever hand it deals – to the full.

“He loves to be out in the fresh air,” adds Audrey, who works for the Thistle Foundation. “Andrew does so many sports you lose track. When he’s not busy doing all that, he’s at the cinema or off socialising. I struggle to keep up with him. He’s a lovely person and he’s proof that having a disability doesn’t mean you can’t do what you want to do.”

Audrey spends three days and two nights a week looking after Andrew as part of the Edinburgh-based charity’s supported living service, which provides round-the-clock care.

When he’s not seeking action-packed thrills, he’s to be found in the much calmer surroundings of Drylaw Parish Church where raised beds in the grounds have been provided to enable wheelchair users to enjoy a spot of gardening. Or he’ll be at Garvald Centre in Montpelier Terrace, which provides art and craft facilities, where Andrew has revealed a flair for creating quirky pottery penguins so impressive he’s had people ask if he’ll take orders for more.

According to Thistle Foundation spokesman Lawson Auden, Andrew is a striking example of how the organisation ensures even those with severe disabilities can lead fulfilling and often exciting lives.

“The ethos of the organisation has remained the same since it was founded. At that time it was very forward-thinking – the idea that injured veterans could live in their own home with their families while receiving medical support was quite unheard of.

“We have carried that forward and today we support people in their own homes. We still provide support for veterans, helping them make the transition from army to civilian life, but we now also support people like Andrew.”

For action man Andrew, it means careering down an Austrian black run tucked into his bi-ski, a skill learned on the dry slope at Hillend.

“I love it,” says Andrew, a huge grin spreading across his face. “I like going fast. I liked going up in the balloon too. It was amazing. I could see all the animals below me.

“I was very brave,” he nods, “very brave”.

n For more details about the Thistle Foundation’s work, go to www.thistle.org.uk

LEADING THE WAY

The Thistle Foundation was launched in 1944 and was visionary for its age in its determination to help provide accessible housing and medical support to enable disabled veterans to live in their own homes with their families.

Over the decades, the organisation has evolved and expanded to offer support to a wider population of people with disabilities and health conditions, through its supported living programme and health services.

It also runs a lifestyle management course for veterans to help ex-military personnel adapt to civilian life. It supports about 100 people between its Edinburgh and Renfrew bases.

The facts

Cerebral palsy is caused by injury or abnormality in the brain, usually while the unborn baby is still developing in the womb.

The term covers a group of motor conditions which cause physical disability. Symptoms can range from very mild to more severe, as in Andrew’s case.

In years gone by he could have faced life in an institution, but modern support and care meant Andrew was able to leave home like any other young man and live independently in his own surroundings, supported by Thistle Foundation live-in carers.