An art student who spent more than a year in hospital after being knocked down by a joyrider has battled back to gain a First class degree from the University of Salford.
Hayley Tonge received her BA (Hons) Visual Arts First at a graduation ceremony at The Lowry in Salford Quays more than seven years since being hit by a car during a night out in Manchester city centre which left her with life-threatening injuries.
Hayley spent 14 months in hospital after the incident in January 2006, nearly three months of which were in a coma. Despite receiving intensive treatment for brain trauma and other injuries – which led to loss of speech and most of the movement on the right hand side of her body – it was thought at the time that she would never be able to return to her foundation art course.
But, through her own determination and the help and support of family, friends, carers and staff at the University, Hayley completed the Visual Arts degree through part-time study over six years.
“It was absolutely surreal to go up on stage and receive my degree certificate,” said Hayley. “I never thought I’d get there, but I just kept going from day to day, improving bit by bit.
“After leaving hospital I had to learn how to do pretty much everything again – how to speak, how to walk. It has been incredibly difficult and I still suffer from quite a lot of pain, but it’s incredible to think I’ve completed my course.”
Now living in Cheadle Hulme, Stockport, Hayley lived in Salford for four years after leaving hospital, and found that her disability made her re-evaluate her artistic approach.
She continued: “Before the accident I loved to paint, but I’m now quite weak on my right side so I’ve become ambidextrous and I’ve had to adjust and work in different media, including photography and sculpture.
“Studying has really helped with my rehabilitation, and coping with my injuries has inspired my work and taken me in a different direction. I’ve used my art to help me make sense of my situation.”
Hayley’s work has focused on her experience of disability and rehabilitation. Her first year exhibition included a hospital gown worn by a mannequin with headphones playing back recordings of several of her doctor’s appointments.
More recently, she has explored the issue of inaccessibility, with a display at the Visual Arts graduation exhibition at MediaCityUK last month entitled ‘Reverse of Access’. Consisting of a low tunnel made from pallets and wooden offcuts with a wheelchair at the entrance, the installation forced viewers to stoop to appreciate it fully and bend down to enter the tunnel.
Using the wheelchair, in contrast, allowed the visitor to move through the tunnel easily, reversing the reality of access difficulties often experienced by people with disabilities.
“I’ve had massive support from so many people,” Hayley said, “and my dad Richard particularly has been a big inspiration. He always told me not to worry if I didn’t finish my course, but just give it a try. And here I am now with a First – wow!
“The life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who was severely injured in a bus crash in 1925, has also been a huge influence on me and encouraged me to continue with my art. Despite suffering pain for the rest of her life following the accident, she continued to paint and found her work therapeutic, which I could really relate to.
“In November, I’m travelling to Mexico to experience the Day of the Dead celebrations and to visit Frida Kahlo’s house. Ever since I started studying her I’ve wanted to go and what better time than in the year I’ve graduated.”
Stevie Kandel, Visual Arts programme tutor, said: "Hayley responded exceptionally well to teaching and the various challenges of the course. She showed signs early on that her creativity was contributing to her recovery, which was very encouraging. Her achievements have been impressive and the staff team is very proud of her.”
Hayley now plans to work towards a photography diploma and to get her own bandsaw in a shed at home to continue with her wood sculpture.