After a night out clubbing in 2007, a car accident left 19-year-old Juan Celliers a quadriplegic, unable to walk, eat independently and use most of his body.
Juan, who shares his story during National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month, says he had to find new ways to accomplish the most simple of activities.
The 32-year-old says his recovery began with trying something different every day and just “figuring it out”.
Without the fine-motor functions he’d had before his accident, Juan decided to quit his fine-art studies and explore new career paths. He studied law for two years and even tried his hand at professional poker.
Juan was a keen sportsman before his accident, enjoying running, rugby, swimming, surfing, high jump and hockey, and it was after he joined the Chaeli Campaign – a Plumstead-based foundation that helps people with disabilities – that he decided he wanted to create more opportunities for disabled people to take part in sport.
In 2010, soon after the idea was born, the Chaeli Sports and Recreation Club was formalised, and Juan became the first chairman.
Increasing sports access began with a wheelchair-dancing programme, but 10 years later the club has evolved to include adaptive cycling and running. For Juan, however, the months and eventually years that followed did not progress so simply.
Life, says Juan, became a waiting game to see how much his body would heal or adapt to his spinal injury. In retrospect, Juan says, he was consumed by the disabling impact his injury was having on his life.
Then in 2017, Juan admitted himself into a four-week physical rehab programme that he credits with changing his life by helping him reclaim his strength – physical and mental.
Juan was able to rekindle his passion for art through drawing, illustration and writing.
Even though Juan’s spinal injury affected all four of his limbs, he has limited use of his arms.
Over time and with the help of rehab, Juan started wheelchair rugby.
In addition to his art endeavours and regularly going to the gym, Juan has his eyes set on publishing children’s books, and, as of last November, is now a home-owner.
Talking about how lucky he is, is likely to strike most non-disabled people as strange, but, Juan sees himself as having emerged from his darkest days, mentally stronger, more resilient and more accepting of life than ever before.
But he adds that he’s “the 1%” and the views within the disabled community are as diverse as the people who hold them.
Illustrating one of his viewpoints, Juan recalls his facetious response after being assisted to the front of the queue in a bank.
“Why should I go to the front?” Juan says, “if anything, I’m sitting in a wheelchair chilling.”
Juan understands that people want to help, but he says: “I don’t want a different standard of treatment.”
Some people feel helpless, he says, at not being able to change the fact that he is disabled. This discomfort, he feels, then turns into an overcompensation to help or be of service.
Although the intention to accommodate is warranted and many times necessary, sometimes it is not.
If we would like to engage more inclusively with others, disabled or not, each of us, says Juan, has a responsibility to become better informed about how our actions could impact those we are trying to help.
So before offering help to a disabled person, first check whether it’s necessary and whether they want it, he says.
If disabled people are given the necessary tools to become more visible and productive across sectors in society, the landscape of what is possible will look very different, Juan says.
Through the provision of appropriate infrastructure, healthcare and access to essential services, people with disabilities are able to participate in – and enjoy – a more accessible, inclusive and just life.