Blingsticks founder Dawn Banton discusses MS, setting up her own business, and how she’s made walking sticks sexy.
Before I developed MS I worked as a professional singer and dancer, and despite being 38, in my heart I’m 18 and still in love with the costumes, the glamour, and the glitz
My dad was my roadie; he took me to all my gigs until he couldn’t manage it anymore – he’s had MS for more than thirty years. He’s now 75 and quite ill and my mum has been battling with breast cancer for seven years, so I do everything I can to help them. My family mean the world to me and I’ve been with my partner Chris for seventeen years now, and we have a little girl who’s 7 years old.
For me, MS literally started overnight. I woke up one morning with no vision in one eye. I went down to casualty, had all sorts of invasive tests and was sent home with the reassurance that; “it’s probably nothing to worry about but we’ll send you an appointment for the eye clinic.”
Before the appointment though, the left side of my body started to go numb. What with dad’s history and what I knew already about MS, I couldn’t help but put two and two together, and unfortunately, within a few months, my neurologist confirmed I had MS.
Needless to say, I was absolutely devastated – me, MS, no way. It’s not proven that MS is hereditary, so it came as a massive shock. It was very hard for my dad to see me diagnosed with the same condition as him; he was broken by the news.
Not too long after my diagnosis I had a very bad relapse which affected both my legs. I went from being an active on-the-go person to being hardly able to walk. After a few falls and sprains I realised that it was either use a walking stick or end up having a serious accident. That`s when I borrowed a nasty grey NHS stick from mum.
I really didn’t want to use a walking stick, and initially it made me feel so bad about myself. There’s a real stigma attached to using a stick, especially for a younger person. After all let’s face it, walking sticks are NOT sexy!
I also found that younger people with MS tend to keep their diagnosis to themselves. When you go out with your mates it’s not cool to have to go to the toilet every few minutes or appear drunk (from wobbliness) even before you’ve had a drink. So an ugly grey stick is hardly a welcome addition to your look.
I’ve actually lost “friends” because of my MS, some of whom just couldn’t deal with my disability or understand that I couldn’t go out like I used to. Other friends have come through for me though, it definitely helps you realise who your REAL friends are.
I’ve always been good at arts and crafts and I designed many of my glitzy stage costumes when I was a performer, so I started thinking about making a walking stick that suited my personality. My first design was a sparkly candy pink Blingstick, and soon after I started wanting one for each day of the week, matching them up with handbags, shoes, and outfits.
Some of the first Blingsticks I created where quite questionable, and initially my love of sparkle got the better of me! But I was soon experimenting with all sorts of materials and my friends began asking me for custom designs. I wanted to make sure that the sticks were well made and beautiful, but also functional and durable. It took a lot of trial and error to find the right adhesives, paints and materials but, finally I cracked it!
I was soon getting so many requests I began to think that maybe I could make this into a business. It felt so good to be turning the negatives of MS into positives and washing away the stigma of having a walking aid.
So I launched my eBay shop and set up a Facebook page. They both went so well that I decided to really go for it and open up a website – it’s now become a full-time job. It feels like a light at the end of the tunnel for me and it’s meant so much for the rest of my family too, especially my dad.
I’m always trying out new designs to keep things fresh, and people often send me fabric samples so I can make a stick for a special outfit, particularly wedding dresses. All sorts of people buy them, including burlesque dancers and able bodied people who just love the look of the designs. Customer service is really important to me and I’ve made friends with many of the people who’ve bought sticks and I’ve also started customising crutches too.
Working for myself has been very good for me, I can be flexible around my changing health. However, I haven’t learnt to say no yet. But customers are flexible and understand that each piece that’s made to order may take a bit longer to send out, especially if I am ill. So I’ve set dispatch time to around sixteen to twenty one days which, I can cope with.
I’m just recovering from a relapse and while I’m getting better and better, I do worry about coping if I have another relapse. So now I’m training up my partner and he’s thinking of working with me full-time. There’s so much happening at the moment, but I find that my MS gets worse when I’m stressed, so I try hard not to get too hassled by it all.
What I’ve found most inspiring is that my sparkly sticks make my customers feel good about themselves. One of my good friends really didn’t want anyone to know she had MS and had stopped going out. But she found that her Blingstick was a great ice breaker and she got loads of compliments. People would ask; “why are you using a walking stick?” It made it so much easier to explain about MS and gave her back her confidence. Now she can’t wait to get out and use it and has added another two to her collection.
I love doing what I do.The best days are those when I pretend I don’t have MS, when I get through the day without thinking about it. I get so much satisfaction from making my designs that I feel more positive about life in general and I know that, no matter what MS throws at me, I have achieved my dream and that I will carry it on as far as I possibly can.
By Dawn Banton