Note from Editor: Over the years I have had the opportunity to work alongside people with various disabilities. What stood out most for me was the attitude with which they went through life, surpassing challenge after challenge, not expecting any special privileges nor expecting any less from themselves. Here, one of my former colleagues, Tim Johnson, gives a first-person account of his serious injury which requires him to use a wheelchair for mobility, no movement from his chest down, and with limited use of both hands. His work ethic, academic achievements, success as a Paralympic athlete, his unlimited zest for life, his dedication as a father and sharp wit make his physical limitations seem very insignificant by comparison. In the six years I worked with Tim, I learnt the meaning of a “can-do” attitude. I realized how easy it was for able-bodied people to take their bodies for granted and how we focus on our inabilities rather than celebrate our abilities.
I broke my neck, C6/7, in a car crash in 1995 and in hindsight I am amazed I survived, considering I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, was likely speeding, the driver had been drinking and to top it all off I was in the back of a work van using a 10 litre paint can as a seat. I did my rehabilitation at a specialized spinal injury hospital and was there for just over 3 months. The only complication from rehabilitation and the injury was a few small bruises and I managed to get a pressure area on my right hip at about the 2 month mark. A real good lesson on why you should avoid these like the plague. Two weeks bed rest was a very real experience of why one should look after their skin. I had a great support network and I worked really hard during my stay so I basically left the unit in many ways very independent. This was I feel a very important thing as the more you can do for yourself the better. Going home was OK but a bit of a struggle as my mother’s home wasn’t modified by then so I spent a few months having to drive to an accessible venue to shower. Thankfully this wasn’t too long and eventually home was accessible and meant I could come and go as I please. The biggest part of my independence was when I eventually purchased a car. Driving independently was huge and something I cannot do without.
I was studying toward a Bachelor of Engineering at University at the time of the injury so had a year away from study before returning full time, completing my BE Hons in 1997. I have done a lot more study since then and have a Diploma of Teaching, Master of Engineering, Graduate Certificate in Career Counseling for Elite Athletes papers and have recently completed a Post Graduate Certificate in Business Administration which is the precursor to an MBA while working full time as a Team Manager.
I have also had success on the sporting field, playing and administrating in Wheelchair Rugby. The ultimate achievement was winning Gold at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games and being honored as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) for services to Disability Sport in August 2015.
There have been numerous challenges but overall, they have simply been an opportunity to overcome and learn from each experience. It might sound pretty cliché but it really is what makes us stronger and breaking my neck was overall just another one of life’s challenges. I’m often asked would I go back in time. I truly feel I wouldn’t as I have had so many opportunities due to my injury and done so much that I couldn’t imagine what things would have been like had I not had the injury. They would have just been different. Would I have studied as much as I have? Would I have seen as much of the world as I have? Would I have represented my country on the sporting arena? Would I have met such a great woman as my wife? Would I have 3 children, Toby almost 4 yrs old, and twins Phoebe and Ollie almost 2 yrs old? Would I be working in a great role within a great organization? I simply don’t know the answer to any of these.
I didn’t overly enjoy breaking my neck and don’t enjoy the issues that come as part of being tetraplegic with very limited function but one thing for sure is there’s nothing I cannot do if I truly want to do it, wheelchair or not. It might take a lot longer and be damn frustrating at times, however I am truly lucky to be alive and have the abilities I have. There is no doubt many individuals are far worse off than me so there is no point dwelling about things or complaining when things get hard.
I say to people to treat me the same as anyone else. I’m no different cognitively, I just can’t walk. I also recommend that if you wish to assist me, all you need to do is ask. 90% of the time I will reply with just a “thanks for asking, but I am ok” , in the 10% of instances that I do take up the offer I also ensure I thank them for helping no matter how small or large the act of service may be.
It’s a struggle but hard work is always going to be a struggle. The benefits and rewards from this make me who I am. Try new things, learn other ways of doing things and learn from others. Do this and the injury in many ways disappears.