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The SANE Blog

International Day of People with Disability Blog – Joel’s story 

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I grew up completely ‘normal’, or at least in my own narrow mind it was. I did what I wanted when I wanted, went places without physical challenges, social or emotional. Played community and school sports, performed in bands, productions – I was absolutely, “normal”. I had no true understanding or construct of disability - or so I thought. I thought that because I had no form of diagnosed disability, I was much like everyone else and everything in my life I was exposed to. I saw disability as, “different”. How wrong I was.  

 The Paralympics on the television every four years would be as close an experience to disability I had. I would see a wheelchair user and spare a moment’s thought of “that person is in a wheelchair”. Nothing else, no comprehension of the “iceberg theory” going on in that person’s life. Essentially, I would see 20 per cent of the individual’s life and not even begin to consider what else was going on beneath the surface (the other 80 per cent).  

Joining the military was the greatest challenge of my life, physically and emotionally. At 19 years old, I got a bigger education and culture shock in three months than I had for the nineteen years I had been on this earth. Living the lifestyle of a soldier was a far cry from growing up with my family in leafy suburbia. In every way I was personally challenged and moulded. Disability became a non-existent thought. 

Fast forward to the 31 August 2014, I was thrown in the deep end. I acquired my spinal cord injury. I now owned a disability permit, identifying me as having a disability. Cue the identity crisis. I had to use a wheelchair to move. My body and physique would go through atrophy and severe transformation. My hands and fingers curled and shrivelled, my posture was terrible, my stomach would bulge in the typical ‘quad pod’ fashion. Clothes didn’t sit well on me. That construct of disability came flooding in, extremely unwelcome, and fast.  

I did not want to leave my hospital room and be seen as this new person. I would abuse people for looking at me, I was so embarrassed and self-conscious, I felt unworthy of love or friendship. I began planning in my own head a life of solitude and loneliness. My internal logic was, “If I can’t do it normally like I used to, I’m not going to have a rewarding life.” Growing up I would see television commercials of people in a wheelchair after an injury painted in a bleak way, their life was essentially over. I put myself in that situation.  

Nine years post injury I am now thriving with a beautiful wife and two daughters, friends who never left me, experiences brought to me because of my disability. I am proud to leave the house and represent the 20 per cent of Australians who have disability. Physical or non, visible, or non-visible. My daughters know me as “Daddy”, they see a man in a wheelchair and see It as normal. They have an understanding that the narrow-minded 19-year-old Joel never had. I educate people daily about disability, mentor those in trauma and leave my house every day with the purpose to educate and expose perspective to prove what’s possible. 

My injury is the most defining moment of my short life and on the 3 of December, for International Day of People with Disability I will proudly move around town, being seen and being heard. Growing up, a day I never thought I would have any enthusiasm or passion for, now sits up there next to Anzac Day for me.  

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