Opinion: Reeve - a genuine superhero

Peter Stanford

There's an ambulance chaser in every one of us involved with a medical research charity. Though we know how terrible the affliction we work to eradicate is and the devastation it brings to individual and family lives, we are always quick off the mark when someone famous is stricken by it.

We know what potential they have to help us communicate our message.

Thus it was with Christopher Reeve, who died far too early, aged just 52. Working at a spinal-injuries charity when the Superman actor fell from his horse, I recall both the horror we felt at what happened to him, and the almost shameful thought, minutes later, that here was someone who might champion our neglected cause on a world stage - and did he champion it.

There are, roughly speaking, two paths taken by those who suffer spinal cord injuries - and probably other disabilities, though I have less experience of these. The first and very natural one is to turn inwards, to focus first on survival, then on independence and finally on fulfilment, in whatever direction. That takes every ounce of strength. The second, and arguably tougher route, is to do all the above but still find energy to fight for everyone in a similar situation, to move from the particular to the general, to build on an individual tragedy to create some greater good that will benefit hundreds, thousands and - in Christopher Reeve's case, through his fund-raising and his promotion of stem cell research - millions.

There is something peculiarly cruel about spinal cord injury in that it tends to strike down young people - most injuries happen between 15 and 35 - often at the very time they are at their most active. Christopher Reeve symbolised that. That he remained a Superman after his accident, though, was the most powerful symbol of all. It was not a club he would have chosen to join, he once remarked, but once in, he gave it his all.

Such was his commitment that he made a positive impact on the lives of everyone with a spinal cord injury, if only by tackling their biggest handicap - the prejudices of the able-bodied.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards.

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