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Dom Freestone — challenge yourself

Photo of Dom in the driver's seat of his customised vehicle. The coastline is in the background.

Dom Freestone

Getting to serve with my mates

I joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) on 21 September 2003. I was training to be a Ground Support Equipment Fitting Engineer, or GSE, which is basically a diesel mechanic.

The best memory I have of being in the Defence Force was just hanging out with my mates all day. If you're a people person, as I was, you'd be hard pressed to find a better fit than a job in the Defence Force. Especially at Latchford Barracks in Victoria, it was a training base so we had to live on the lines. So living with all of my friends and then going to work, hanging out after work, keeping fit and going to the gym. There's just so many things to do every single day with your mates. Definitely my fondest memory.

A tragic injury ended my career

I want to take you back to 2005; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was showing at the cinema, and Lance Armstrong was making history, recording his seventh straight Tour de France win. I was a 23-year-old Ground Support Equipment Fitting Engineer, serving in the Royal Australian Air Force, and my life had a clear direction and purpose. In retrospect I can forgive myself for thinking that everything happens for a reason as I was young and naive.

One particularly hot summer's day, I was swimming with friends — it was like so many insignificant summer days prior. Though, this was not going to be one of those insignificant summer days, this was to be one of the most pivotal days of my life. I had spent the day with my friends swimming at the Hume Weir Dam in Albury-Wodonga. It was getting late and we were making plans to leave, and I decided to go for a final swim to wash the sand from my body. I dove into the gloomy water but had misjudged the depth, and I hit something, something hard and unforgiving. It forced my head toward my body, shattering most of the vertebrae in my neck, sending shards of broken bone into my spinal cord, paralysing me instantly. I floated to the surface, still face down in the water, and tried to flip myself over to take a breath. I couldn't move. I held my breath and waited. How long could you hold your breath if your life literally depended on it? It felt like an eternity to me. Finally, my friend came to my rescue, flipping me over and calling for an ambulance. 

I spent the next week on life support in Melbourne's Austin Hospital and underwent a spinal fusion to remove my shattered spine, fusing metal in its place. I was grateful to be alive yet somehow not. At this stage I had no movement in any part of my body, which they call spinal shock. Do you know how lucky you are to be able to scratch your nose or feed yourself? I mean do you really appreciate being able to do these things? I do. Over the coming weeks and months I slowly got little pieces of movement back in my arms. I was told I was a quadriplegic, but I'm moving my arms I thought? I would learn, quadriplegia means impairment in all four limbs, not necessarily complete paralysis in all four. In my case I can move my biceps and some wrist muscles, but I have no hand, triceps or lower-limb function.

Finding the strength to move forward

The next year of my life was spent in hospitals and rehabilitation facilities, learning the skills I would need for my new life; the physicality I had once prided myself on was now a distant memory. Slowly I got stronger and I felt like I was making real progress, and before I knew it I was heading to Newcastle to start my new life. In retrospect, I was delusional with what I expected my new life to be. I thought I'd come home to balloons and drunken parties, back to the way things were before. The reality was in stark contrast, an empty Department of Housing unit where I no longer had the support of the wonderful staff at Royal Rehab or the shoulders of my fellow spinal cord injured peeps. This next year was the hardest of my life and it took its toll on me; I fell quickly into depression and lost all direction for my life.

A few things happened around this time; one, I started seeing a psychologist; two, my brother and sister-in-law welcomed their first girl to the world. I started to learn techniques to help myself deal with my issues and came to the realisation that I'd already put my family through enough; I wanted my niece to grow up in a world where she had an uncle who loved her. I needed to move my life forward.

I started looking for volunteer opportunities and was lucky enough to be given the chance to guide people around the local Maritime Museum. I knew nothing about maritime history but I quickly learnt. Now it was around this time that the first iPhone had just been released and it blew my mind, it was like magic. I'm not sure if Steve Jobs knew the difference something like this would make for disabled people like myself but it was a revolution. For the first time since my accident I could easily use something, like it was designed with me and my disability in mind. I could see a change coming and wanted to use technology to improve the lives of disabled peopled. I identified an opportunity to contribute using technology after a negative experience travelling. I decided to start a website ( promoting accessible travel destinations for people with mobility issues. I'd travel to locations, take photos and measurements before posting them on my website, teaching myself html and css via YouTube. The website was noticed by a local company which asked me to come and help them out. Finally, I was able to see my worth and understand that I still had so much to offer.

I began to believe in myself once again and felt the need to progress my skills. Now despite this new-found belief, I still had major concerns over my physical ability. I wanted to start a Visual Communications Design degree but couldn't even hold a pencil "properly" so how could I become a graphic designer? I thought I'd start with Open Foundations, and if I could handle this, I'd start university. I did so much growing over the course of Open Foundations and went into my degree full of confidence. Later I would be included in a celebration of 50 years of Open Foundations and selected as a luminary of the Arts. Other opportunities started to present themselves at this time, where I began talking at the University of Newcastle, to physio students and educating them about spinal cord injury (SCI). This led to an opportunity for me to be involved in an education program targeting high school kids, talking to them about life and SCI. I found out that the Hunter Region had the highest incidence of youth (aged 15–24) SCI in the state, and we wanted to change this. Over the next three years I spoke to around 6,000 kids, telling them about my experiences. I realised that very few of these kids would suffer a SCI but all of them would go through major challenges in life so I altered my message to be about overcoming adversity; I would constantly tell them that one of the biggest lessons I've learnt over my time is to not let my past dictate my future.

I finished university in 2017 with the highest GPA of my graduating year, a quadriplegic graphic designer. Who would have thought? This was in large part due to the support given to me by DVA, who paid for my degree, set up an accessible office and also gave me an allowance to help with expenses. I've done so much growing and understand now that my purpose is to live a life of meaning; a life filled with inspiration that works to empower those close to me. Identifying areas I can make the biggest impact on, while being vigilant that I cannot deal with every injustice I see. To look past what currently is and envisage what it could be. Making the most of every opportunity and being strong enough to move past my insecurities to see my potential fulfilled. DVA has played a massive role in my life reversal and the current trajectory I find myself on, I really can't thank the team, and also my amazing Advocate David Christie enough. David is a Level 4 Advocate who is also the proud recipient of an OAM for Services to Veterans.

I'm also still receiving a wage, I think it's 70 per cent of what I was on at the time of the accident. The money that I have is easily enough to let me live comfortably. Especially with the fact that I own the house now, so I don't have to worry about the rent and those type of things.

I am so grateful for everything that DVA does for me and all the assistance I get. It can be hard sometimes because I think I'm probably a pretty rare sort of case. I don't know that it would have many 30-year-old quadriplegic guys to look after. So when I go to them with something that's a little bit different, they are sort of like, oh we don't really know how to help with that or whether we can help with that sort of thing. So then they go away and check policy and look at different things. It can be frustrating and hard but at the same time I am so grateful for things like the car and the house modifications and the wheelchair that I sit in, which can also stand me up.

They paid for the occupational therapists (OTs) to come out and look at things. So I have a height adjustable desk that I use. I have a Wacom drawing tablet that is like a computer that you can draw on, which DVA also purchased for me. They did like the splints that I use to type on the computer that they get made every now and again, whenever they run out. I guess the main things were the car, the desk and paying for university. And then if the OTs identify something that they thought could help me they would ask DVA if they were funded or not. There is so many things that I just would not have had without DVA that I'm thankful for.

A drive to give back

I have a long history of working to empower people with disabilities and to educate abled bodied people about disabilities, particularly SCI. I often volunteer my time to causes around the Hunter; like ParaOuad NSW's Mind Your Back program, Accessible Arts NSW, Jumo Health, Northcott, The Spine Care Foundation, Octapod, Disabled Surfers and CoAct. Currently I have undertaken an internship with Life Without Barriers, working in their amazing Communications Team.

There is a program called 'Mind your Back' through Paraquad and that was aimed at kids in Newcastle because Newcastle at the time had the highest prevalence of SCI in the state. So they wanted to change that so it was mainly talking to them about SCI and risk factors and how people have their injury. I also speak to kids around the Hunter about the power of art and disability. And also inclusion and what it has done for me. That has been really positive as well. I've also been lucky enough to be involved with the team at Northcott and Jumo Health, which created a podcast series for anyone wanting to find out more about living with SCI ( It's actually really good, check it out!

The biggest rehabilitation challenge

There are so many. I guess maybe the loss of independence is the biggest issue that I have. It's like, I talk to school kids about SCI now and one of the schools I was talking at, a little girl asked me what is the hardest thing about being in a wheelchair. And I said to her, it's being the guy in a wheelchair. So it's very easy to sit at home, watch television all day you know and not do anything and be comfortable in your little house. It's much harder to go to university or go to that party and sit there and be the guy in a wheelchair. That, I think, is the hardest part about going from being an able-bodied young person to that guy in a wheelchair. It's hard to go and talk to people, it's hard to do anything because you have this stigma in your head about what it means to be disabled and how people perceive you. So that's probably the hardest part.

Getting it done — advice to other veterans

I think you need to be patient. You need to get things in writing. Probably also not just ask for things but think whether things are clinically justifiable and how can you justify the need for having these things is probably the best way. Because if there is a clinical justification for things and it's related to whatever your illness or problem is then DVA is really good with that sort of thing.

Wanting to make a difference in the future

I think I'd love to work somewhere that was making real change in the community. Whether it was like a council or some sort of organisation and you are working with them to make life better for people with a disability. Whether that's through making things more accessible or I don't really know. If I could be doing that in 10 years and making real difference in my community.

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