Martin's employment journey
During the development of season two of our documentary series Perspective Shift which explores the life experiences and employment journeys of three people with disability, we realised that there were far too many community stories going untold. In an effort to amplify the voices of our community and shine a light on repeating themes in our society, we connected with some people who wanted to share their stories.
My daily commute in 2010 was a 40km round-trip bike ride. One day I simply didn’t see a red light, which resulted in my head hitting a car windscreen at about 50km/h and left me a C4/5 incomplete quadriplegic. Yet I’m here at my desk today writing this piece for the Attitude Foundation when I could so easily have died. I was incredibly lucky.
But it was nonetheless “catastrophic” in that it was a momentous event causing a violent and sudden change in my life’s course. There’s no getting away from the fact that my spinal cord injury marked an end to many things that made up part of my identity, most of which I took for granted. As a former table tennis champion, I had well above average coordination, reaction times and flexibility. All those have disappeared. Cycling 200 kilometres a week not only kept me fit, it also meant I spent a minimum of 10 hours per week outdoors. Now I struggle to get a good cardio workout and spend very little time outdoors. No more cycling, hiking or camping trips. No more beach or backyard cricket or epic Frisbee sessions with my son.
But although I had an intensely physical life, I also had a well-developed intellectual side. As a literature graduate, I have a great love of reading. I enjoy film and TV, as well as board and card games. But most importantly, I’m a career editor and manager, so my employment isn’t reliant on physical ability. It became clear to me very early on that those who have the most difficult adjustments to make after becoming physically impaired are those whose professions were manual or physical, particularly tradies; and those who had an ill-developed interior life. What’s more, I had the most supportive employer you could wish for: Lonely Planet. As I languished in rehab for months on end and exhausted my sick leave, they simply gave me more.
I had a visit from three senior Lonely Planet managers while I was still in an acute ward. My manager later told me that when they saw me there – with my tracheotomy, my gastro-nasal feeding tubes and cannulas, looking more dead than alive – they did not expect me back at work. Ever. But they arrived bearing a gift: the first-release iPad. And this highlights another enormously positive aspect of my injury: timing.
Incredibly, my brother was also a quadriplegic as a result of a spinal tumour that was removed in 1995 only at the cost of his spinal-cord. It was a tough decision he had to make, but of course he chose life. Since then, I saw his independence and quality of life increase year by year as technology improved, first with the development of computers and voice-activated software and then with the introduction of smartphones. By the time I had my accident in 2010, technology had improved to such an extent that, theoretically, there was no impediment to my return-to-work. And technology continues to improve partly because – as with kerb cuts, the typewriter, closed captions and so on, all first developed to benefit different cohorts of the disabled population – there’s a growing realisation that what benefits the disabled minority actually serves the interests of the entire population. I certainly couldn’t do without Dragon Speaking Naturallywhich allows me to control my computer entirely with my voice – and my smartphone is a constant companion, for everything from communication, information and banking to controlling the TV and heating in my house. But the same may be said even of doctors and surgeons without a disability who rely on exactly the same technologies.
Contrary to expectations, even while I was still in rehab, I did start going to work once a week. Importantly, there was support. Discussions among myself, return-to-work consultants and Lonely Planet’s HR Department came up with a phased return-to-work plan. Barriers – physical and technological – were identified and removed; my work hours were steadily increased; regular check-ins ensured that I was coping physically and mentally, had everything I needed, and that the return-to-work plan was adjusted as necessary.
As is so often the case, until I had my accident, I had never fully considered what life would be like for someone with a disability – and this despite my own brother having been a quadriplegic for more than a decade. (In my defence, he lived on the other side of the world and we had had little direct contact.) And despite having worked for Lonely Planet since 1999, I had never once thought about what it would be like to travel with disability. So this is what I started looking into. And here again I was lucky. A combination of good research skills and being employed by a well-loved company led to me making some excellent contacts – who became mentors – in what I came to know as an established field: accessible or inclusive (my preferred term – but that’s another story) travel.
Almost two years after my accident, I managed to get back to my beloved job as Editorial Manager, responsible for production of all books by an in-house staff of about 70 people plus an army of freelancers. In other words, with the support of my employer, I showed it was possible for a quadriplegic to hold down a job with major responsibilities. Sadly, six months later the company was sold and restructured and this job disappeared. Again, kudos to Lonely Planet: they gave me the option to take up a newly created position as Accessible Travel Manager. There is little doubt in my mind that they regarded this as a sinecure, but in fact this opened the door to enormous possibilities, not only for me but also for Lonely Planet.
As a career editor and people manager, my entire life had been spent working to strict rules within well-defined and -regulated processes and parameters. I now had a job title with no structure or direction, and I had no experience with networking or green-field start-ups. Clearly, this had to change: I had to learn these new skills as well as to educate myself from scratch in a field completely new to me. I would never have dreamt of being able to learn such skills at any time in my life, let alone in my 50s. But, supported by my employer, this is what I managed to do and, six years later, I am now regarded as an expert in my field and regularly asked to speak at conferences around the world. I’ve been invited to Canada, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Thailand, the Philippines, Israel and Kazakhstan, and in the process forged relationships between Lonely Planet and NGOs such as the UNWTO, the Pacific Asia Travel Association and the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, not to mention destination management organisations around the world. In addition to these connections, Lonely Planet has gained acclaim for furthering the cause of accessible tourism.
And never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I would become the chairman of a Board of Directors, which is a position I’ve held for three years with IDEAS, a venerable not-for-profit based in New South Wales doing a fantastic job of providing accurate, independent information for people with disability, their families and carers. Indeed, it’s performing a similar function to Lonely Planet, because providing impartial information creates true choice which in turn contributes to independence. IDEAS walks the talk, too, when it comes to employing people with disability: 80% of IDEAS staff live with or have lived experience of disability, 50% of board members live with a disability and other board members either have lived experience of disability or work in the field. This experience has also given me the opportunity to learn new skills and acquire new knowledge, such as around probity and governance. What’s more, in this role – as well as through my recent appointment to the Victorian Disability Advisory Committee – I have been given further opportunities to make positive change in the lives of people living with disability.
Sadly, due to the catastrophic effects of Covid-19, Lonely Planet decided to close its offices in Melbourne and London, which leaves me unemployed…for the time being. But I will be forever thankful for having been given the opportunity to continue to be financially independent and to support my family. More than that, acquiring a disability led to unlooked-for professional development and some amazing opportunities, which is why I sometimes think of my spinal cord injury as a lucky break!