Ben: Not the End of the World

interview by marie chung

It has only been a short journey in the BTL project and we have discovered that the strongest people are the ones who have learned from the most difficult circumstances in their lives. Ben is a father of two children, and a husband to a life-long partner who has stood by his side since his accident. At the age of 22, in the peak of his active involvement in sports, Ben’s right leg was amputated as a result of a severe accident at his work. As Ben tells us more about his experiences, he comfortably acknowledges that he has had significant self-esteem issues. When we come to know more of his story, Ben shows us that it is not the end of the world and rather that with acceptance, determination and the support from positive networks, we can continue to live at our best.  

Ben, what are you doing with yourself now?

I’ve started doing public speaking at work about safety and the prevention of accidents happening in the workplace similar to what happened to me. In the past I used to do public speaking at schools, and sports awards nights. I’d talk about overcoming adversity and how incidents such as mine aren’t the end of the world. You can actually do things to overcome them.

What happened to you exactly?

In 2002 while at work, part of a bulldozer accidentally crushed part of my body. It hit my lower right legs, below the knee and crushed my left foot. I was 22 at the time and one month after the accident, I subsequently lost my lower right leg. From then, it closed a lot of doors in regards to what I was doing with sports and my career, but then it opened up a few more. I began studying and doing other things that I wouldn’t have done before.

You have had both legs for most of your life and then suddenly they were taken away from you. What was the transition like?

To be honest, it was hard. There was a lot of the unknown. There was the first shock period where I thought to myself, “How am I going to get by? What am I going to do in my career?” I was very embarrassed about it, even six to seven years after the accident. I was embarrassed to walk around with a prosthetic leg. It’s surprising how long it took me to walk around in a pair of shorts.

Being 22 at the time and developing this self-consciousness around your leg, what was it like to be in social settings and seek out the opposite sex?

I had a partner at the time and have subsequently married her. I struggled for a long time in being confident with myself. She was accepting of me and she was there for me, but I did not have confidence anymore. I thought, “how could someone love you when you couldn’t love yourself?” I didn’t know what the interest was to be with me when I did not have any interest in myself.

Did that impact your role being a male in the relationship as well?

Yeah. At night, because I don’t sleep with my prosthetic on, if something should happen, I can’t go and see what the problem could be. My wife has to do that for me. Even when the kids cry at night, I can’t go to them. It has put a lot more onus on my wife, so it is pretty hard from that perspective. Though I still like to stay active as I can with my kids by playing soccer with them.

How do your kids perceive you?

They make me laugh and smile. To them there is no difference, that’s just the way dad is. But I can take the kids to day care or drop them off at school and I can see the heads that turn. In kids you can appreciate that they are curious, I don’t mind that. My kids don’t see it, they haven’t been that inquisitive about it. It hasn’t been a big issue and there was no deep and meaningful conversations. You can see their intrigue though.

Now you are currently working for Rio Tinto. Did you start employment with them prior to or after your accident?

I only started working with them three years ago. When I had the accident, the company stuck by me but I had to move on, push myself and step outside of my comfort zone. I’ve moved from company to company since then.

Are you happy with your current workplace?

They are one of my preferred employers in Australia. Admittedly, the industry is tough and there are some big downturns.

Did you find that in terms of accessing employment, you’ve had issues with that because of your disability? Do you identify yourself as someone with a physical disability?

No not really. I can’t remember if I put anything down on the application form that says I have a disability. The last place I worked was an underground company which involved walking 2 kilometres out of a hole. They asked if I could do that and I said I could, but at the end of that, it would definitely be enough for the day.

How did your personal networks or friendship networks receive the news when you had the accident?

Initially I went from playing competitive team sports, where it was training with guys two or three times a week, playing on weekends and drinking or socializing with them. For the first two or three months, I had 20 or 30 people rock up on my door every night. When I moved up to Townsville, I got less visits and people did not come and visit as often. You have to realize though that you can’t put your life on hold for people and that people move in different circles over time.

It’s a natural course.

You still have your close friends that you catch up with and play football with. From a family perspective, it has been all good but there is one person in my family who gets to the point of saying “yuck”. I’m not sure if she was meant to come across like that.

Would you say she has more conservative values?

Yeah, she is from an older generation.

How have you dealt with her comments?

It’s one of those things that is not worth going into. It’s water off a ducks back, I’m not sure whether she meant anything by it. It was just the way it came out.

Do you think there are other people that share similar beliefs to physical impairment?

I suppose I am a bit naïve in my own perceptions of physical impairment. I like to compete with able-bodied people and try and go out of my way to do things. When you stay in those active and athletic crowds, you are in an encouraging environment. It’s better than surrounding yourself with the people that aren’t as encouraging.

I’ve tried a lot of sports for a long time, like wheelchair basketball. When I was up north it was hard to progress and it took me awhile to find something that I was passionate about. Prior to my accident, I played rugby semi-professionally, and it took me a long time to find something that I could be active in and have decent interest in. I think what I’ve realised now is that the ability to compete with able-bodied people showed me what I could actually do – that I was not someone with an actual disability.

You still have maintained your fitness levels which is excellent. Would you have any advice to people who are in similar positions to you?

Everyone’s different. I don’t think everyone is looking for that type of challenge in life. You would have to look at those people who have had accidents but it’s hard to offer people advice on what they can do because we are all different.

The only thing that I can say is that it’s not the end of the world.

You have everything you need to overcome that and technology has come a long way, there is an improvement everyday. It’s not that I sit at home and watch T.V, you aren’t on crutches for the rest of your life.

Well it seems you have been able to do a lot of things since your accident. Can you reflect on any particular instances in the past where you might have experienced discrimination soon after you had your accident?

No one is willing to put you at risk, but if you stand up and show that you are willing to give it a chance, then they will let you. Of course, you have to be conscious about when someone can get potentially injured.

If you wanted to go into different sports that you couldn’t do, maybe there would be some discrimination. I’m a bad case as I can’t run because my left foot was crushed as well. I’d do sports like touch football or touch rugby league if I could, but I can’t run. Maybe there would be another level of discrimination in these sports but I haven’t really encountered that.

You don’t see yourself as having a disability, is that right?

Yeah I don’t think so, but I would definitely use that on my application for a disability car park!

From your experience do you believe that Australia is a little less progressive than other countries?

Compared to my experience in Europe and staying there for two months, I’d say yes. The disability access they have over there is also more developed.

Are there specific daily activities that are different to what you would usually do in the past?

I suppose those little things like getting ready and showering. You don’t shower with your prosthetic leg. At home it’s okay because you have the facilities, but at work you don’t have those facilities. When I go swimming in my own pool, I am not conscious about my leg, but when I go to someone else’s swimming pool, I have to take off my prosthetic leg and I don’t want to show them my stump. It will probably take more time for me to be confident with that.

There is a whole theory around phantom limbs and pain sensations, do you get those pains?

I do but only once every three or four months. It feels like I’ve stepped on a nail for one and a half or two seconds, then it goes. It won’t happen for another month or two. You could be getting coffee, sitting at your desk or driving your car.

What were the subsequent rehabilitative sessions like after your operation? Did you do some training?

Not really. Everyone was going on about what you should be doing, but it was not really a problem. My father took me home and the lady asked where we were going. I said, “I’m outta here, I’m done”. I’d been there for 3 – 4 months already.

She asked what I was going to do to walk again but my dad turned around and said, “I taught him the first time”.

There are many people who are dogmatic in doing those practices. It’s good that you could pick yourself up on your own. In your opinion, what do you think a disability is and what do you think the public’s perception of disability should be?

It’s something that limits your possibilities. You may not be able to do something physically or you are discriminated against for it.

You have also just got to accept that there are some things that you cannot and will not be able to do. It is just a fact of life. Elderly people don’t want to do rugby, but it’s not a disability. It’s whatever you let it be.

Do you agree with using that term disability to identify people or would you prefer an alternative to that?

It doesn’t worry me, I don’t know how else you would sum it up. It’s just the way it is. I’ve always joked about the fact that when I go to Wet n Wild with a prosthetic leg and board shorts, everyone stares. Yet someone who walks past who is obese, in my perception, has more of a disability than I do and no one will think of it in that way – that’s just the way society is. The one leg is different, whereas overweight people are accepted.

It’s the old thing, don’t judge a book by its cover. See what people with disabilities can do. I think everyone has a story, regardless with or without a disability, but people with a disability have gone through a lot and their stories are phenomenal.

Since his accident, Ben continues to challenge himself and others by participating in activities that identify him as an athlete, a father, a husband and an employee of Rio Tinto – having a disability has not determined his quality of his life.

His openness about his personal battles with self-confidence offers us alternatives to think about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a father. Ben’s story confirms that despite the expectations of others, when we establish our personal strengths, we can still create valuable livelihoods to share with our family and friends.