The Exit Interview: Sophia Malthus
You fell from a horse at age 19 when you were training to be a jockey. What was your immediate reaction?
I was lying on the track and I couldn't feel my legs on the ground. I thought my legs were in the air and I asked someone to pull them down and that's when everyone began to get worried. But there wasn't a moment of [horror]. You're so high on drugs [at hospital] that there wasn't a time when I thought, "Oh crap, I can't move." They wean you on to it so slowly. If there was a time that I realised, then I don't remember because of the drugs and the trauma.
Your career plans changed instantly - what do you want to do now?
I didn't have a career or an education under my belt [when I had the accident] so now I am trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. I have organically been put into the role of normalising disability, I think. I get fulfilment from a disabled person being present. One out of four New Zealanders has an access need. What we see represented in the media is not representative of the general population - for example, the guy on Shortland Street who just had a spinal cord injury is walking now. I feel really grateful for the opportunities I have been given to normalise disability. When I'm watching TV and I see someone in a wheelchair I'm like, "Oh my God, there's a wheelchair, that's so cool." But it really shouldn't be like that. I shouldn't get excited when I see someone representing my disability, it should be normal.
In Meme, you play a disabled high school student. How was that?
I think it was really pure that they wanted to cast someone who was actually disabled. Anyone can act in a wheelchair but I couldn't act as someone walking, so when able-bodied people take a role that I could take, that is cutting me out. I think [the producers] have amazing values. It was the highlight of my life, I had so much fun.
It's been three years since your injury. What is your perspective on it now?
I have never held a grudge. Going back to where it happened, I was emotional because I saw the place where my life changed. I have done really well with my mental health, I haven't been through any depression or PTSD or anything like that. I think I have a lot of resilience.
Do you put that down to mindset?
It's a mindset thing but it's also privilege and opportunity. Have you heard of the terms "disability porn" or "inspiration porn"? It's where able-bodied people use disabled people to inspire them. When I had my injuries, all the people around me knew about disabled people was that they went to the Paralympics and it's because there is no attention on the people who are in poverty or have mental health issues because of it, who lose all their relationships and their families because of it. There's a spectrum. People in poverty may not understand that they can claim their fuel costs and get help getting to all their appointments. You break your back, you're in hospital and after three months you're thrown out and yeah, there is some support but it's only there if you ask for it. There is a huge gap.
Has your injury changed your relationships with people?
I have lost relationships. Working in the racing industry is hard and you're always together. I was working seven days a week with a group of girls. They're always at work, so I have pretty much lost my relationships with them. Everyone else's life goes on and I am stuck here. It's been such a big life change. Before, I envisioned having a very physical job and now that's not an option. I have very little interest in working in an office. I am spending my time working to get consistently more independent and then I can get a job. I would potentially like to work in media.
How do you respond when people say you are inspirational? Does that make you cringe?
I ask why. I'm inspirational because I had a massive fail and now I'm trying to get on with my life? You would be just as inspirational. I picked something up off the floor, "I'm an inspiration?" I get messages on social media all the time saying, "You're way too pretty to be in a wheelchair." I get told I am beautiful far more now than I did before my accident but I am the same person. It just proves people don't expect people with disabilities to be attractive.
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Sophia Malthus stars in the black comedy Meme, on TVNZ OnDemand.