Kurt Fearnley, Australia’s most famous wheelchair racer, says it is unacceptable that people with disabilities should have to spend their time ‘looking at life go by’. Kurt was a guest speaker at the NSWNMA’s Future Ready conference.
For Kurt Fearnley, the defining moments of his life are the moments few people will ever see.
They are found not in his Paralympics and Commonwealth Games triumphs but his interactions with other people with disabilities.
Kurt, 38, started wheelchair racing when he was 14. He has won three Paralympic gold medals and two Commonwealth Games gold medals.
Competition has been a big part of his life for the past 25 years but his next 20 years will be defined by “the moments that happened en route to competition,” he told the conference.
Moments like spending time in a Middle East refugee camp with parents of children with disabilities.
“It is the very first time in their lives that they have spent a moment with a person with a disability who has power in their life and education behind them,” he said.
“You see them look at you and realise it turns on its head the way they will see their child from then on.
“All of their hopes and fears that they saw in their child for the first few years of their life just get challenged in a moment.”
Or, moments like seeing an African teenager with a disability put on a school uniform and go through the school gates for the very first time – just as his siblings have always done.
“You experience their moment when they feel that dignity of being able to learn. And it’s the first day they’ve received it, even though they’re a teenager,” Kurt said.
“I think that if I’ve done something of worth over the last 25 years or so, that is actually the thing I’m proud of, that is the moment I will define myself by.”
A product of kindnesses
Kurt, a teacher and father of two young children, grew up in the small NSW town of Carcoar and lives in Newcastle.
His achievements include crawling the entire 96km length of the Kokoda Track to raise awareness for men’s health, crewing the winning yacht in the 2011 Sydney to Hobart race and being appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for distinguished service to people with a disability.
His work includes the Kurt Fearnley Centre in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, which provides education opportunities for African children.
“Lack of expectation of disabled people rips the life out of people, rips the hope out of them,” he said.
Despite being born with lumbar sacral agenesis – missing the lower part of his spine – Kurt would crawl around paddocks and race his wheelchair with his siblings growing up in Carcoar.
One day, his father carried him inside the house and showed him wheelchair athletes on TV.
“He showed me what was out there for me,” Kurt said.
He has described himself as a product of a culmination of the kindnesses given by many people over many years.
One of those who strived to help him reach his potential was his school principal, who insisted on his right to receive a public education.
“Expectation is where drive, where spark is born,” Kurt told the Future Ready conference.
“And I feel a mixture of guilt and gratitude that I grew up in a place where expectation was hammered into me.
“Struggling is where we find who we are, struggling is where we become who we’re meant to be.
“The building blocks of my past are always the ones with a bit of struggle in them, a bit of substance in them.”
Emotions galore on the Kokoda Track
He says the 11 days he spent crawling the Kokoda Track, when his weight dropped from 54kg to 46kg, were the hardest time of his life.
Before leaving for the trek, a teacher who knew Paua New Guinea told him he would find that people with disabilities were looked after and given love but also kept isolated, because people assumed they did not want to interact with the community.
The teacher told Kurt: “While you’re crawling through these villages you’re going to make people question that. Every step you take on the track, every person with a disability is going to be on your shoulders.”
Stopping at the first village on the track, Kurt found locals were “a bit terrified of me – they had never seen a guy in a wheelchair propelling himself before and it just didn’t click with their reality.”
Kurt found a boy with a disability in the village, “naked, isolated, crawling in the mud underneath one of the houses”.
“I would push over to this kid and he was afraid of me. That was the first time I interacted with the reality that two thirds of the world who require a wheelchair will never see one.
“Hanging around with this kid was one of the most emotional points of my life. Emotional for me, my family and his family.” It was also emotional for one of the PNG porters who helped to carry gear for Kurt’s party.
At the sight of Kurt with the disabled village boy, the porter “starts to tear up and disappears into the bush,” Kurt said.
“And when he walked back into camp that night he walked up to the boss of the trek and said, ‘Kurt’s my brother and I’m his’, and he never left my side for the next 11 days.”
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