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Episode 2: Dean Clifford: Building Strength

Meet people with disability from across the state in Choice and Control, a podcast from Carers Queensland.

Dean Clifford with his weights set.

Kingaroy-born Dean Clifford has Epidermolysis Bullosa, and has taken his remarkable story of survival and success around the globe as a motivational speaker.

Dean is also a passionate disability employment advocate, and was inducted into the Disability Employment Australia Hall of Fame in 2018.

We speak to Dean about his experience in the workplace, the importance of disability employment, and his passion for weightlifting.

To find out more about Dean or stay in touch visit his website.

If you have a story you think we should feature on Choice and Control, please contact our enquiries line on 1300 999 636, or email cq.enquiries@ndis.gov.au.

Please note due to COVID-19 social distancing requirements, this episode was recorded by phone.

Download the transcript

00:06 Douglas Connor:  Hello, and welcome to Choice and Control, a podcast celebrating the contribution that people with disability make to our communities. In this series we are talking all things disability, social inclusion, and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Throughout this series, you will also be hearing some great practical advice for making the most of your plan from local people accessing the Scheme. This podcast is brought to you by Carers Queensland, NDIS Local Area Coordination Partner in the Community.  I’m your host Douglas Connor, thank you for tuning in.

Today I’m super excited to welcome Dean Clifford to the podcast. Dean is a motivational speaker and disability employment advocate who has taken his remarkable story of survival and success around the globe. Dean grew up in Kingaroy in country Queensland and has been defying the odds and changing perceptions ever since. Dean, welcome to Choice and Control, and thank you very much for taking the time to catch up with me today.

0:59 Dean Clifford: Hello guys, it’s my pleasure Doug.

1:20 Douglas: Dean, you were born with a skin condition called epidermolysis bullosa or EB. Can you explain what that is and the impacts that condition has had on your day to day life?

1:31 Dean: Yeah, so EB as it’s more commonly known as it’s a very, very rare genetic skin condition. The easiest way I explain to people is, my skin doesn’t have the same glue and anchors that the average healthy person would have. So I’ve still got the same skin layers as everybody else, but I described it as like a loaf of bread that doesn’t have any butter to hold the pieces of bread together. My skin just sits together on top of each other without any of the anchors and binding property to keep it together. So my skin is medically regarded as having the strength and consistency of tissue paper, basically.

I’ve got to be super careful, anything from walking and missing a little incline, or a little step, or if I brush up against something, there’s no strength to my skin. So the way I explain it is as if you were to trip over and bump into something, you might get a little bruise on your arm or your leg, with me the skin will just peel straight off and an aggressive wound or ulcer will form.  It’s an incredibly difficult condition, something that I’ve had my entire life now, something that you’ve got to think about and work with. Literally every single thing that you do, from opening a packet of biscuits through to whatever your day to day activity may bring about.  There are obstacles with everything, outside elements, they could just be tripping over a step or gripping a door too tightly or too heavily. It’s something that is really difficult to quantify because an every single day, every single element, every single thing that you do you have thought about from an outside-the-norm perspective.

3:35 Douglas Thanks very much for sharing that, Dean.  When you were born doctors thought it was unlikely that you would live past five, you’ve recently celebrated your 40th and have been surpassing all medical expectations for years. What’s that journey been like from then till now?

3:52 Dean: It’s been an amazing journey. It blows me away to even think of just celebrating my 40th. When I was born, I was one of the first in Australia with one of the most severe versions.  With EB there can be so many different variations, some people can just have very weak skin isolated onto their feet, or their hands, that  high use area and other parts of their body can be pretty well unaffected and pretty strong skin consistency wise.

With me, as I said, I was one of the first in Australia to have one of the most severe versions, basically every part of my body and all my skin is incredibly fragile. So the doctors gave me at best a four to five life expectancy, they’d never seen anybody as severe as myself.

So yeah, to look back now and think of overcoming all the day to day obstacles overcoming the outside stereotypes in the community and the negativity that I had to face at times, to be accepted to go to school, to be accepted in the workforce, to be accepted in all the general activities that I tried to pursue and all the goals and things that every other person tries to do in their life.  It’s been a huge journey and something that I’m incredibly proud of, to now be one of the oldest in the world who has survived and be in a really strong and healthy position with my body and my general health is really, really, really healthy and really strong.

So I’m thrilled to now be in a position to hopefully inspire the next generation who are struggling with their teenage years and, you know, struggling with what they’re going to do with their life when their body is so fragile and so limited in what they can do, to bring about a perspective of you can have a really positive life and you aim high, you just maybe have to look at things slightly different to how they’re the average person would look at things.  Take on challenges and target things from a different viewpoint, but you can still achieve phenomenal things and live a really productive life.

I’m really proud to have gone through all those difficult times and come out of it with a perspective of being able to share to other people goals and dreams, and that belief that life is really worth living to its fullest.

6:42 Douglas:  Dean you also have a real passion for disability employment.  In 2018 you were inducted into the Disability Employment Australia Hall of Fame. Can you talk us through some of the work that you’ve undertaken in the disability employment space and where that passion for employment really came from?

6:59 Dean:  It came from when I finished school.  I was really faced with a crossroads in my life. I was still incredibly sick, right through childhood, I still am not a hundred per cent, I don’t class myself as being a hundred per cent now, my body’s still was very weak and I still have to be very careful of what I can and can’t do. But back then I was very, very weak, I was was very frail. I was struggling with where I fitted in the world, what my life was going to be like. I didn’t think university was for me because even the medical world, at 15, 16, the medical world still didn’t expect me to be alive to see my next birthday, let alone to think of what I was going to do long term as a job or where I was going to fit into society.

So it was around that 15, 16 age bracket that I really struggled to work out where I fit, where I belonged the world.  I grew up and lived in a very small country town called Kingaroy in Queensland here. And so, I finished school and I did not feel like university or going on to further my education was something that I really wanted to do, for me it was all just about enjoying each week, and each month, and living life to its fullest, rather than thinking about having a five year goal or a 10 year goal.

So I was very lucky that I thought I’d like to try to get a part time job and just experience that side of things, at the local radio station in my home town of Kingaroy offered me just a one day a week voluntary job.  That was pretty much all my body could handle. And so I started working there on a voluntary basis just for one day a week. And within a few weeks I was enjoying that work, I felt like I could contribute to the workforce.

The local specialised disability employment agency then suggested that we approached my boss about getting a paid work experience type role there, so I could make a little bit of money and start earning an income. They were receptive to that idea, so they made up a trainee position for me for about three days a week, if I could handle that, for about two hours per day. And at the end of that paid work experience, I was thriving under the different roles that they asked me to do. So that then became a part time job, the work experience finished and they wanted to keep me on that, that grew to three days a week with three hours a day.

Jump ahead to the end of my time at the radio station, I was working 13 days out of 14. I got one day off a fortnight.  I was thriving under the conditions. I worked from very basic admin, you know, stamping letters and putting postage stamps on envelopes through to the end of my time at the radio station, I was in one of the more high profile positions co-hosting the breakfast show.  That then just led to the community, learning all about me, and my disability, and what I was.

So I became a person who wasn’t just the sick disabled kid, for want of a better phrase, I became known as Dean who had a pretty sharp sense of humour and knew amazing sports statistics. I became somebody that the community got to know more than just through my disability, and that then led to getting established into the community, fitting in to the workforce.  And it highlighted the need for fitting in and feeling like you belong to the workforce and to the community.

That led to being an for Disability Employment Australia in the early 2000s, which was huge: to be able to meet with politicians, meet with high profile businesspeople and just break down some of those common misconceptions about employing a disabled person. A lot of businesses think it’s going to be very intrusive, very difficult to employ a disabled person. They think that somebody like me with a severe disability will need a lot of time off or we’ll need a lot of workplace modification, or just cost a lot of money to get set up, but they don’t realise the government is there to help with workplace modifications if it’s required.

Most of the time a disabled person will be a long-term employee once they’re matched up with the correct job that they’re in the right workplace. Of every person who I’ve met over the 15, probably closer to 20 years now, of traveling around and meeting people, the disabled people in at my opinion are the most passionate employees that our businesses will ever get.  They take fewer sick days because they love going to work, it’s such a thrill to be working and be contributing. So many disabled people are just thrilled to be working and contributing that they are more productive. They work harder, they stay in the business longer. They contribute, in my opinion, far more than a lot of average people. And so once businesses learn that side of things, they then come around to the possibilities rather than seeing the potential hurdles that they have to jump through. And so it becomes a real win-win situation.

It’s so important for a disabled person to get out into the real world, be contributing in a meaningful way. It’s not a tokenistic job, that’s not what anyone wants. We want to be a contributing workforce, feeling like we belong. And I think that’s something that everybody deserves, whether you’re disabled or not.

14:00 Douglas: That’s a really incredible contribution, Dean.  You mentioned working against some of the common misconceptions that are still quite prevalent in society today in regards to disability employment.  For example, that hiring a person with disability might cost more money or present different challenges for a business. What advice do you give to businesses and organisations that are considering hiring people with disability?

14:22 Dean: I think the benefits are huge.  I think there are a lot of specialised disability employment agencies and networks out there now that businesses can tap into. So it isn’t all on the business to research what they can tap into, whether it’s workplace modifications or whether it’s finding the right staff. I think there’s a lot of support there through, as I said, specialised disability employment agencies, and also through the NDIS.  There are so many different avenues there for a business to be matched up with the right person.  It’s not going to take anything away. It’s going to value add.

If you need someone to detail a car, or do gardening, there is somebody whose dream job it is do exactly that.  If you need somebody to do computer, marketing, admin, whatever it might be, there is somebody whose dream job it is to do that.  They’re not necessarily looking to climb the ladder and become the CEO. They’re more than happy to do their job and do their job really well.  They take great pride in what they do.

There are so many different scopes and different avenues there. I would urge businesses in general just to approach it with a genuine open mind, whatever role you need.  I have no doubt there’s somebody who’s more than qualified who may have a disability, maybe even a severe disability, who’s just looking for that break.  That’s an opportunity for a business willing to think outside the square to give them a chance.

16:20 Douglas: And Dean, on the flip side of that, what advice would you offer young people with disability looking to kickstart their careers or to find employment?

16:25 Dean: I think for young people it is very, very daunting. I can still remember when I was first trying to get a job. There are a lot of doubts that they’re capable, or that they fit into the community. Even in the circles that I associated in, an EB meeting with young kids with EB, my skin condition, there’s a lot of doubt as to if they’re capable of working.  There’s a lot of uncertainty about how their life is, whether they’ll be able to do a job or whether they’ll have to leave the job because they get sick or whatever. I was just trying to say, like, think of what you’re passionate about, think about what your dream job would be, and I’m sure there’s a way to work it to fit what your capabilities are.

You can find your passion and find a way to turn that into a job, and turn it into a social outing, and an income, and turn that into improving the quality of your life. There are so many opportunities for disabled people these days. If you’re willing to think outside the square, you willing to seek the help, the guidance that’s there, suddenly different opportunities to think outside the square come up with that dream role that you may have thought of.  So just do not limit yourself, don’t be closed off to the idea, just being willing to put yourself out there and seek and look that guidance and that professional help. And I’m sure the boundaries and the brick walls will just come falling down and I’m sure you’ll have a fantastic experience in the long run.

18:24 Douglas: Dean, you started your motivational speaking company DMC Motivational in 2004, and have since travelled the world telling your story to a range of diverse audiences from primary school children to prime ministers. What’s that experience been like?

18:40 Dean: It’s been an amazing journey. It definitely wasn’t something that I thought I would do at that time. I thought nobody really wanted to listen to a country kid from country Queensland who only grew up and lived in a small country town. What sort of worldly experience would people want to learn from me?

I do want to inspire people to think big, because I never thought I’d be working and I never thought I’d be contributing to the community.  So I thought, yeah, I guess I’ll start sharing my story and giving my views on how important it is to work and to feel a sense of belonging and accomplishment. So I started to come up with the idea of what parts of my story people might be interested in how, I deliver a speech, and then from that first presentation within 12 months I was traveling all around Australia.

The feedback was just so amazing. And then it just continued to evolve to 2005, being invited to become an ambassador for Disability Employment Australia, traveling to Canberra to meet with federal ministers and prime ministers and share my story.  Within eight years I was starting to get international inquiries and travelling to England and to New Zealand and America. It’s been such an amazing journey, as I said, because the small-time country kid just had a passion to share my story and inspire people.

20:22 Douglas: Well it really is a remarkable story Dean, one that’s taken you from Kingaroy to Canberra and beyond. And it’s obviously a story that has really resonated with so many people around the country and globally as well. Now, outside your work life for a moment, you’ve actually pursued another passion to a highly competitive level, and that’s powerlifting. Can you tell us how you got started with the sport, and if you ever imagined the kind of success that you ended up having?

20:49 Dean: Yeah. It’s again one of those crazy moments, it was never something in my wildest dreams I could think of. I still get emails from people saying ‘how can you do this when your skin is as fragile as what it is?’  My skin is incredibly fragile.

But I was just hanging out at a friend’s place, almost 15 years ago now. My friend said I’d used a wheelchair for a lot of my childhood, pushing myself around in the wheelchair, and he said I’ve obviously got a fair bit of upper body strength and it’s just such a shame that I could never tap into that. He said if I could exercise, imagine what we could achieve.

I said ‘well, I don’t know if I can or can’t exercise because it’s not something that I’ve ever tried to do’.

And so, just sitting in his lounge room, he said ‘what if we got down and we did ten push ups?  How would you do that?’

My hands handled that, so pretty quickly my friend said ‘well, let’s try weights’.  By the end of that first day I was lifting my bodyweight on the bench press, and my mate just stood back in amazement.

Pretty quickly after that my mate and I sat down and we consulted medical experts and some medical advice. And again, they just said flat out ‘what you’re wanting to do won’t be possible.’

But my mate, I’ve known him most of my life, he said ‘look, I think you could do it’.

And I said ‘I feel like I could as well’.

So we went by the advice of let’s try it, and if we have a major complication then we’ll stop and we’ll reassess things then.  We decided to trial and error, and just persist.

Jump ahead to now, my record in the gym is bench pressing 150 kilos.  Well over double my body weight.

22:47 Douglas: That’s impressive by absolutely anyone’s standards, 150 kilograms.

22:54 Dean: It puts me around, I believe according to some of the coaches and some of the people I hang out with, it puts me around the top 5% of ablebodied or disabled people in the world, as one of the strongest people, whether it’s physically disabled or just ablebodied. It’s absolutely amazing.  Again that’s something that I talk about, not limiting yourself, not thinking it’s going to be too dangerous, or it’s not worth it. If it’s something you really want to do, you can usually find ways to achieve it. You can usually think outside the square and push yourself and you’d be amazed what your body’s capable of achieving. So bench press is just another example of something that everybody said I wouldn’t be able to do, but my mate and I thought let’s give it a go.

23:52 Douglas:  Dean, that really is a truly amazing progression within the sport and an awesome personal achievement. The National Disability Insurance Scheme rolled out in Queensland in 2016 and came to your hometown of Brisbane in 2018. Can you talk to me a little bit about the supports you’ve accessed and the impact those supports have made in your life?

24:08 Dean: Yeah, the impact has been huge.  It’s given myself so much freedom and independence.  I now have three people that come to assist me with my morning skin routine, to make sure that my body stays in the best possible condition. I no longer have to consult specialists or check into a hospital to manage my skin, I’ve got the support now, the support workers that come to the house and assist me every single day to get the best out of my general health and my body.  I’ve been able to live independently now for quite a few years because of the NDIS support. I’ve not required any major hospitalisation and not required any sort of medical advice.  I’m able to care for myself independently and look after myself basically, almost on the same level as any other person would expect out of their life.

I’ve got the independence to live as independently as possible and seek the help that I need.  And seek the equipment, whether it’s the motorised wheelchair for when my feet and my legs are playing up, I’ve got a motorised scooter to jump in and get out and about to achieve my daily activities. I’ve got home support with the equipment that I need at my house to no longer have to worry about damaging my skin.  It’s been huge with the home support that I’ve got, the home modifications that I’ve had, the equipment that I’ve been able to access.  And as I said, the support workers there to help every day so that I can just get on and achieve my dreams and my goals. It’s been such a huge relief and a huge thing to have the NDIS there to support me now, in everything I’m trying to achieve.

26:26 Douglas: Thanks, Dean. It’s fantastic to hear the freedom that the NDIS support has afforded you.  Well Dean that’s all for today, thank you so much for taking the time to share your incredible story with us. I’ve had a great time hearing it and I’m sure all the listeners at home would feel the same way.

26:32 Dean: No worries, it’s been good fun.

26:34: Douglas: To learn more about Dean you can visit his website at deanclifford.com.  On there are some great photos and videos of his incredible powerlifting successes, which are well worth checking out.

Thank you once again for tuning into Choice and Control, the Carers Queensland podcast.  For more information about Carers Queensland, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, or the Local Area Coordination Program, please connect with us online at carersqld.com.au.  Or you can catch up with us on Facebook at facebook.com/CarersQueenslandNDIS. We hope this podcast can become a place for people with disability to share their experiences and their stories, so if you have a story that you think we should know about please contact us via the Carers Queensland enquiries line at 1300 999 636 or via email cq.enquiries@ndis.gov.au.

Until next time, thanks for listening.

Episode 1: Inclusive Employment

George Arkinstall runs Gardening A Difference, providing employment opportunities for people with autism or mental health challenges.  He started the business in 2016 as a way of providing a job for his brother Harry, who has autism.

Episode 3: Inclusive Brisbane

Bella Busine is one half of the dynamic duo behind Accessible Brisbane.  Together with her best friend Briana, Bella is on a mission to make Brisbane a more inclusive and accessible place for people with disability.

Want to know more?

Read more about our NDIS Local Area Coordination Partners in the Community Program.

If you have any questions, please call 1300 999 636, email cq.enquiries@ndis.gov.au, or visit our Contact Us page.