A local woman with roots in Malin Head and Derry has been honoured for her sporting achievements and her dedication to improving the lives of disabled people.
In a career spanning more than 20 years, Angela Hendra MBE has won six Paralympic medals, was a founding member of the organisation Disability Sports NI and is a fierce advocate for disability rights.
Last weekend, she received the lifetime award at the Disability Sports NI awards.
Angela was born in Malin Head and moved to Derry as a ten-year-old girl. Just two years later Angela became disabled as a result of an abscess on her spine.
She spent six months in the old Waterside Hospital prior to the diagnosis before she was transferred to the Royal. She was operated on and sent to a specialised spinal unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire for rehabilitation.
“I knew I would be spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair. Stoke Mandeville was fabulous, it was the absolute making of me.
“I was extremely shy when I left Derry. The staff at Stoke Mandeville were very good at motivating you, giving you wheelchair skills and setting you up for life.
“They taught me that life doesn’t stop when you are paralysed, you just do things differently. It was a real culture shock, but when I came back I was very assertive.”
Angela spent 15 months at the hospital, which was the birthplace of the Paralympic Games, and she developed a strong interest in sport during her time there.
After her rehabilitation, Angela returned to Derry but was unable to continue her education or get a job here and moved to Belfast.
“I moved to Belfast and got a flat and a job in the laboratories in the City Hospital. It was something that was quite difficult as a disabled person in the 60s, because disabled people didn’t work.”
She remained committed to sport and joined a table tennis club in Belfast and began to compete.
“I was in Stoke Mandeville when the first Paralympic Games were held. I thought it would be a good way to travel the world and I did. ”
Angela spent years training before taking part in the Paralympic Games in Heidelberg in 1975 where she won bronze medals.
She also won the Wheelchair Class of the World Table Tennis Championships in 1975 and winning further medals at the 1976 Games in Toronto, and the 1980 Paralympic Games in Arnhem.
Angela later specialised in Lawn Bowls and went on to win bronze, silver and gold medals at the 1984 Paralympic Games in Stoke Mandeville.
Angela had always been interested in disability issues and following the end of her competitive sporting career became committed to improving the rights of people with a disability and to improve services and access.
“I have mentored people and counselled them when they are first injured, helping them to adjust to wheelchair life and giving them practical information. It is something I have always done.”
Angela was also instrumental in the establishment of the Centre for Independent Living in Belfast.
“It is going strong and now has a staff of 25. It really empowers disabled people to take control of their own lives and gives them skills to be employers,” she says.
She was also one of the founding member of Disability Sport NI and served as chairperson of the organisation for 12 years.
Angela is currently the president of Disability Sports NI.
Despite travelling the world, Angela remains rooted to Malin Head and tries to visit as often as possible.
However, she admits her life may have been very different if she had remained in Derry or Donegal.
She adds: “I can’t imagine if I stayed in Malin Head or Derry that I would have travelled the world.
“I wouldn’t have had my mind opened up to different countries and how they deal with people with disabilities.”
Angela said she was ‘thrilled’ to receive the award in recognition of her life’s work.
“I was very surprised and really, really thrilled to receive the award. I felt very honoured.”