Jane Crosbie and her daughter Phoebe Lyle are rewriting the script for disability

As Jane Crosbie, historian and book editor, publishes her new book on ‘non-conformist' famous people from Co Down, she tells Gail Bell how she is has had to break the mould herself when fighting for her severely disabled daughter

Phoebe Lyle and her mum Jane Crosbie at their home outside Bangor, Co Down. Picture by Mark Marlow
Gail Bell

HER book editor mum may have just published her first book in 22 years, but tenacious Phoebe Lyle is also rewriting the script when it comes to severely disabled young people reaching for their dreams.

As Jane Crosbie's historical hardback Famous Folk From Co Down hits the shelves, Phoebe – paralysed from the neck down and ventilator-dependent following a hit-and-run accident in Spain in 2001 – is making her own mark and writing a novel she enthusiastically describes as a "mix of fantasy and real life".

"It's called Werewolves, Vampires And Dreamers," the soon-to-be 21 year-old informs me during a break from study in the specially adapted part of the family home outside Bangor. Here, in addition to her mum, two carers are in attendance – and there is also a rather famous interloper lolling in a corner.

Irish actor and Once Upon A Time star Colin O'Donoghue looks convincingly part of the conversation, easily bouncing here between Phoebe and carer Sarah O'Neill – even in a life-size, cardboard cut-out kind of way.

It turns out Ms Lyle is a serious fan, but, as an equally serious broadcast journalism student at Belfast Met, she follows politics as closely as fantasy films these days.

"I think I'm following in mum's footsteps with writing, but my aim really is to write scripts for film," she adds. "I would love to do that."

And, as her proud mother will testify, there is almost nothing this inspirational young woman can't do once she sets her mind to it.

Celebrating her milestone 21st on January 8 will be a momentous occasion for Phoebe's parents, Jane and Robert, and also her brother, Patrick who, at just a year older, was only a young child himself when tragedy struck.

A lively, happy, carefree three-year-old on holiday with her family, Phoebe was left clinging to life in a Spanish hospital after being thrown 40 feet in the air and landing on her head on a mountain road.

It is a day her mother will never forget, but thankfully, her daughter has no memory of it at all.

"Phoebe and I have talked about this and I'm really thankful that she doesn't remember anything," Jane says. "I think it would be so much harder if she remembered being able to move. This is her normality, her reality, and she can't compare it to anything else."

Remarkably, Jane and Robert, an advertising and media director, have made their peace with the unknown driver who stopped briefly at the scene, promised to get help and then drove off and didn't come back.

"We don't hate him and we made that decision pretty early on," Jane confides. "We forgive him, as it is the Christian thing to do. He has to live with what he did and he doesn't know the success Phoebe has made of her life – in spite of his actions."

The author of several local history books and a freelance editor, Jane is incredibly proud of her brave, bright daughter whose only complaint – as told to Stephen Nolan in a live interview around four years ago – was that she would like to be able to scratch her own nose from time-to-time.

"She also told him that she wanted his job," Jane adds, laughing, "and that is pure Phoebe – she is limitless really. She paints, using a brush with her mouth, she writes, makes films and takes photos with the help of technology and has a real joy for living. She flourished in her GCSEs and A-levels and is now loving her journalism course at the Met.

"Her sense of humour lifts us all and, really, I don't see her chair [wheelchair]. To me, Phoebe is only disabled by the barriers that other people put up, particularly in terms of access to buildings, parking on footpaths, staring... the small, daily frustrations that we encounter.

"I am a historian but I can't see how a historic building is somehow diminished by having a wheelchair ramp. It is a subject I am becoming increasingly vocal about."

Phoebe isn't keeping quiet it about it either, it seems, and, when coming up against unnecessary obstacles during the photographic part of her course, takes a black and white photo as visual documentation.

"Unfortunately, she is gathering up quite a collection of black-and-whites," observes Jane, who, even when in animated 'campaign' mode, exudes a seemingly unshakeable sense of calm.

A strong faith is the reason and she recounts the time she and Robert sat, Bible open and silently praying, in the cafe of the Spanish hospital in Oviedo, waiting while their beloved daughter went through an intricate operation to stabilise her neck following the severance of her spinal cord.

"We had the Bible with us and we were praying and I just let it fall open and put my finger down the page," Jane recalls. "It was Psalm 46, verse 5 – God is within her; she shall not fall. I asked for a sign and that was it, so I don't worry so much about the future."

Meanwhile, her writing serves as therapeutic distraction and her book on Famous Folk takes a refreshing look at many well known – and some slightly forgotten – characters who, in one way or another, made an impact on wider society.

Among them are Harry Ferguson and Patrick Bronte who need no introduction, along with Killyleagh's Sir Hans Sloane who left us the British Museum, British Library and Natural History Museum – as well as the recipe for milk chocolate after he sold his recipe to Cadbury Brothers.

But, as an old Victoria College girl herself, one of her personal favourites from the fascinating 18 figures chronicled, is Margaret Byers (1832-1912), "an influential advocate for Women's Suffrage" who revolutionised education in Belfast "and, arguably, throughout Ireland".

"She insisted all her teachers had to have a degree to teach in Victoria College, so the girls in her care received at least the equal of that offered at the best male schools," Jane says.

"Her legacy is seen at every graduation in Ireland today and every time a woman exercises her right to vote."

What links all her different book personalities is a non-conformist attitude – something that attracted the writer to them in the first place and something she sees in Phoebe and herself.

"I have had to be a bit like that," she admits, "first, in the approach to Phoebe's care and getting the right care package, and then fighting to have her educated in mainstream schools. Also, no-one with Phoebe's needs had ever been cared for outside a hospital setting in Northern Ireland before, but I was determined she would live her life at home.

"People ask me, 'Did you not pray for a miracle that Phoebe would walk again?' and I tell them, I did and I got it. Phoebe is still with me – she is my miracle."

:: Famous Folk from County Down, published by Laurel Cottage Ltd, is in local shops and major Tesco stores now.

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