Andrew's story: A wheelchair entrepreneur

Six years ago, Andrew, then a personal trainer, felt a sense of hopelessness after his spinal cord injury. He is now building a video and photography business and has a renewed sense of purpose.

Andrew is a Lifetime Care participant.

Andrew was born in Nigeria and migrated with his parents and younger brother and sister to Australia in 2001 when he was 13. Andrew's first name is actually Chetachi, which means 'remember God'. When he came to Australia, he started using his second name, Andrew.

His father was a politician back in Africa. He felt unsafe there and wanted a better life for his family. The family spoke English at home so Australia seemed like a good place to go.

A love of sport

Andrew went to Ashfield High and loved it, but mainly for the Physical Education and the sport. He mostly played soccer, although he has the height of a basketball player. He didn't care to be academic.

He started a law degree, but after a year was bored with it so got a job as technical support at Optus. Although this wasn't fulfilling, he stayed there five years as he was trying to figure himself out.

"I learnt a lot about teamwork, how to persevere, how to deal with people in offices."

During his work at Optus, Andrew was very focussed on fitness and body building. He thought, why not try and do that for a living? So in 2011 Andrew started working at Fitness First in the city as a personal trainer. He did photography gigs as well.

"I was even a paparazzo for a while – staking out celebrities – but also did weddings and lifestyle shots. By 2015 I was 27. I felt I was at the cusp of becoming someone who knew what they wanted to do," said Andrew.

The motorbike accident

One morning in May 2011, Andrew was heading to work on his motorbike from the family home in Ashfield.

At an intersection Andrew had the green light, but confused signalling between two bus drivers led to Andrew driving straight into the side of one of the buses.

“My head was pushed into my chest. I never lost consciousness and I remember the heat of the road and the terrible pain and thinking about my parents – like all immigrant parents – wanting so much for their children.”

Andrew was in hospital and then rehab for nine months. The accident had severed his spinal cord at the T3 vertebra. He was now a wheelchair user with limited strength in his upper body.

A big toll

In hospital Andrew met a peer support education officer and also a Lifetime Care participant called Heidz. The pair clicked straight away.

"We were the same age and we had the same injury level and were both keen bikers," said Heidz.

The accident had taken a huge mental toll on him because he'd been so active, and with body building it's what you look like that's important. Being in a wheelchair was terrible for Andrew. He was feeling 'what's the point of anything?'.

Andrew was reserved at first but then slowly came out of his shell. He has a lovely sense of humour and he did very well in rehab.

A new home

Andrew found it hard returning home.

"It was so disorienting – like a familiar environment you no longer belonged to. Before I was used to being tall, but now I was short and having to look up at everyone," he said.

The rented family home needed modifications to accommodate Andrew, but the owner wouldn't cooperate, so the family had to move to a larger house in Concord. In the new place, the rooms are bigger so he can move around in his chair. The only addition has been a new ramp.

"I try to be as less obviously disabled as possible!" Andrew said.

“I felt I had no prospects, that I was starting at Year Zero again. I thought I can’t go back to being a personal trainer; I can’t do photography.”

Learning about film

Andrew had the time to work on it and eventually he returned to both previous careers. He wanted to go back to work at Fitness First and they were keen to accommodate him, but at first just the travel into the city terrified Andrew.

"One day I just froze in my chair on the footpath. I couldn't work out how to go down the slope. I just stayed there for an hour trying to look as if I was enjoying myself. I was too embarrassed to ask for help and no one offered it. Eventually I just got a cab home.

"But I made myself go into town again. And now I go in most evenings to see three or four regular clients.

"With the photography, I knew I was going to have trouble lifting cameras. I've always liked creating images so I started watching YouTube videos about how films are made. I watched lots of indie movies. I really like the Coen brothers' films, their slow pacing, the way they do more with less. I did a bunch of online courses on cinematography – I'm still doing them."

It's my vision

Andrew started doing commercials for free where he'd organise the crew and the talent – often it was calling up friends. It's now starting to pay off for him and my business, T-rex Productions, is taking off.

"I guess I'm more of a director. People come to me with an idea and I can conceptualise it. It's my vision that gives it value. I get a lot of fitness-based commercials and promotions and now I really want to go from commercials to film."

Andrew now has a Batec attachment for his wheelchair that turns the chair into a motorised scooter. He first saw one ridden by Heidz when he was in hospital and wanted one.

“It's got big tyres so it can go over rough terrain. I can take it on the footpath or on the road, or on flattish hiking trails. I feel invincible with it. It makes me feel part of the human race!”

Andrew has gone overseas a number of times since his accident.

"I love travelling and I love the great outdoors. New Zealand is my favourite place on earth. I love the fiords and the mountains – so beautiful and peaceful."

Heidz and Andrew keep in contact and Heidz has seen the growth in his friend.

"I’ve seen him grow from someone who thought there was nothing to look forward to. He's now someone who has got so much purpose. He's just a beautiful and successful person!” Heidz said.

See Andrew’s work