Martin on a mission

Manchester Arena bombing survivor and disability advocate Martin Hibbert is on a mission. If he’s not scaling Kilimanjaro in his wheelchair or writing his debut book, he’s meeting MPs and change makers to fight for better access. Our editor spoke exclusively to Martin about his busy life  

As I sat down to chat with Martin Hibbert, it quickly became clear that this Bolton lad wasn’t messing about. Passionate, determined and straight-talking, Martin is doing everything he can to improve the lives of disabled people. 

Raising almost a million pounds for the Spinal Injuries Association, of which he’s now vice-president? Check. Writing a biography sharing his story? Check. Speaking to audiences around the world about his experiences to inspire change? Check. Working with MPs and officials to improve access and shift perceptions? Check. 

OUTSPOKEN ADVOCATE  

Martin is a fast talker, and he’s also a fast worker. He’s achieved all of this – as well as adjusting to life with a spinal cord injury, and becoming an outspoken advocate for disabled people – in a few years, since he was injured in the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017. The attack killed 22 people, injured more than 1,000, and led to Martin being paralysed from the waist down and his daughter, Eve, suffering a life-changing brain injury.

Adjusting to life with a disability has been challenging. Martin describes his time in hospital as like “being in a bubble”. Then there was the shock of being discharged: “There’s nothing,” he says. His wife Gabby became his carer, they had to find a new, accessible home, daily medication was tracked via spreadsheets, and they were still visiting Eve regularly in hospital. 

Martin’s x-ray after the bombing

“We were just left,” he concedes. “There was no one to sit me down and say ‘here’s the help you can get, these are the benefits you can apply for’. I shouldn’t have had to deal with that.” 

Martin feels that a mentor would make the transition much easier for anyone who has recently acquired a disability, and told us: “We struggled for six months. Pardon the pun, but finding your feet again in a world where you’re not accepted or embraced… it’s a difficult thing to live with.” 

Martin with his wife, Gabby

THE REAL ISSUES 

Since his injury, Martin has been working tirelessly to change things for the disabled community. He’s chaired a government meeting and been involved in the Disability Action Plan, appears regularly in the news and media, and is working with Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Manchester. “Manchester is one of the best cities in the world,” he explains, “but I want to make it the most accessible city in the world. I want to sit down with planners, architects and business owners and find out what the real access issues are.” 

But actions need to follow words, and Martin says: “People are starting to find out I don’t take any prisoners. I’ll speak my mind and I won’t be treated as a fool.” He wants to see companies and local authorities being held to account (something he’s supporting via the Spinal Injuries Association), and feels the disabled community seems to shy away from “those difficult conversations. We need to have those hard conversations like the BAME and LGBTQ communities did, getting our message into people’s faces. When we do that, we make changes,” he hesitates. “But we don’t do it enough.” 

CLIMBING KILI 

There’s lots to be done, and Martin is fired up: “Everything’s a battle. Like when you’re first injured, you’ve got to do all the research yourself. It’s like the Kilimanjaro thing –.” That’s ‘the Kilimanjaro thing’ where Martin raised almost one million pounds for the Spinal Injuries Association by climbing Africa’s highest peak in an adapted wheelchair. He finishes: “Having a spinal cord injury or being disabled, it’s like climbing a mountain every day.” Martin’s Mountain, as the June 2022 expedition was called, was part of Martin’s mission to raise awareness of the barriers people affected by spinal cord injury must face everyday. 

As well as being an epic personal challenge and an incredible fundraiser, climbing Kilimanjaro was about something more for Martin: “It gets a message out there, hopefully to the government, saying ‘look at what somebody in a wheelchair can do when you invest in them’,” he explains.

Martin at Mount Kilimanjaro

“Seven people a day get a spinal cord injury in the UK,” he reveals. “But only one in three get the help and support that I got by going to a spinal unit. Look at the investment they made in me. Let’s give that to everybody so we can all do it.” Because of his ceaseless work, Martin was listed in the top ten of the Disability Power 100 list by Shaw Trust in 2023. “It’s nice to get that pat on the back and to know people are watching, but I don’t just want a certificate on my cabinet,” he says. “I want to do something with it.” Because it’s not about physical barriers for Martin, but also about perception and societal change. 

“Let’s stop talking about it,” he tells me. “And let’s crack on.”  

FOR MORE INFORMATION 

Martin’s book ‘Top of the World: Surviving the Manchester Bombing to Scale Kilimanjaro in a Wheelchair’ is released on 25 April.

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