Interview with Michael McGrath
PUBLISHED: 16:58 09 September 2016 | UPDATED: 09:29 15 September 2016
Named as one of Brtiain's most influential disabled people, Michael McGrath talks about challenging stereotypes, treking in the Antarctic and inspiring others
You were diagnosed with the muscle wasting disease muscular dystrophy at 18. Can you describe your feelings at the time?
It’s a bit like someone flicking his fingers and, in that instant, your life implodes and changes forever. My diagnosis was like a bombshell. It hit me hard, not just for me but also my family. I had what I refer to as my ‘Castaway’ moment, not knowing what to do or which direction to take.
How do you view the definition of being disabled?
My diagnosis was a defining moment. Today, my disability has become a passport, enabling me not only to challenge society stereotypes and influence positive change but also to be a role model by inspiring young people. The word ‘disability’ may well apply to me, but it will never define me. Not only reaching the North and South Poles and raising awareness of muscular dystrophy but the words of support from Richard Attenborough when I was feeling overwhelmed due to the deteriorative nature of my condition supported me. He said, ‘You simply must keep going.’
Your polar expeditions by were record breaking. What drove you on?
It was an extreme platform to raise money for and awareness of muscular dystrophy. This was about making the impossible possible. So many people said to me ‘Michael you can’t do that!’ that I suspect even my family thought I’d lost the plot. I recall phoning my wife from the South Pole in a state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion and then breaking down. One of the most popular speaker keynotes I’m invited to give is a talk called ‘Ice, slice and adrenalin’. We live in uncertain times and the themes of resilience, leadership and change seem ever prevalent.
You founded the Muscle Help Foundation. what are its aims?
We’re a small charity with national reach, based in East Herts. We have a singular focus: to change lives and give hope to children and young people who have muscular dystrophy. We do this by providing experiences called ‘Muscle Dreams’. There are many benefits, from greater self-esteem and an increased sense of hopefulness to a shared identity that connects families and shares knowledge. Highlights of the project have included a young man who interviewed Al Pacino in London. His mother said that she had never seen her son so happy. Hanging out with Lewis Hamilton was something that three young people will remember for the rest of their lives – he was a real gent! We desperately need more support to reduce the Muscle Dream waiting list.
You were listed in the 2016 power 100. what are your key strengths?
The 2016 Power 100 list celebrates British diversity, highlighting disabilities from across the UK. For me, it is all about inspiration; it comes from the Latin word ‘spiritus’ meaning ‘to breathe life into’ and that’s what I try to do, in remaining optimistic for the future and leading by example. It’s an ethos underpinned by my five guiding principles of self-belief, preparation, focus, personal accountability and authenticity. Applying these helps me to inspire others to be the best they can be. I’m reminded of the words of one of my heroes, Ernest Shackleton, who said, ‘Optimism is true moral courage.’