Woman paralysed after her mum fell asleep at the wheel becomes a catwalk model


In November 1995, model and Ph.D. student Claire Freeman from New Zealand was in the car with her mum Barbara and sister Beth.

During the two-hour drive, Barbara, now 70, fell asleep at the wheel.

Disastrously, the car veered off the road and rolled down a cliff crashing it on impact.

Claire sustained a severe spinal cord injury at the C5/6 level, which is the type of injury that can result in loss of sensation or function of everything in the body.

Claire was flown to Auckland Base Hospital by helicopter where she was placed in an induced coma for two weeks.

She had to spend a year in and out of hospital and was given less than a 10% chance of survival.

Despite doubts, she made it through the three surgeries and subsequently became quadriplegic, paralysed from the neck down.

Since then, Claire has been using a wheelchair and taken up a modelling job.

In February 2018, she was approached by an Italian modelling agency Iulia Barton and has since been on the catwalk in Milan for Fashion Week.

Though she is now thriving, growing up with a disability has been difficult and she has experienced PTSD from the accident.

The trauma she felt caused her to attempt suicide four times within a five-year period.

While she recovered, Claire also started her design degree in Wellington and became reluctant to move back to her hometown of Whangarei.

She said: ‘I never returned home to the far north after the accident, I was too humiliated and didn’t want anyone to see me using a wheelchair.

‘I felt like a total freak; I didn’t know anyone who was disabled, and I hated the fact I couldn’t walk. I despised my new broken body and would wear black baggy clothes and hide when I could.

‘Growing up after the accident was extremely difficult. The university campus was totally inaccessible, and I spent the first three years not talking to a single student due to being extremely shy, depressed, and embarrassed about having to use a wheelchair.’

In the years since the accident, Claire had to have other surgeries including one to connect her bladder to an external bag.

But after they used the wrong tubing, Claire went into a coma.

Claire spent years feeling insecure about her disability and would hide away, until one day she decided to put herself out there by setting up an Instagram account.

She said: ‘I connected online using Instagram, where I amassed a fairly substantial following. I connected with others with the same injury and for the first time, felt happy and had a sense of purpose.

‘I hid from people, ashamed of using a wheelchair, yet now, I call myself a survivor and I only feel pride in who I am and where I’ve been.

‘My body doesn’t end at my flesh, I consider my wheelchair a part of who I am, much like an amputee feels like their prosthesis is a part of their body.’

Claire also has a very close relationship with her mum, who moved to Wellington to be with her.

‘I have lived the most spectacular life in many respects,’ added Claire.

‘It has had its dark moments, but they have taught me so much.

‘I feel I am a better person having had this injury. I’m not saying it’s easy, it’s not, but it is rewarding and through studying, I have realised how much work needs to be done regarding society’s perceptions of those with disabilities.’