Updated: Aug 16, 2022
Meet Justin – my cousin who was left partly paralyzed after a police officer shot him in the back. He is one of the most courageous people I know after having his life changed in such traumatic and tragic circumstances.
📸 London 2012 Paralympic Games
It all just happened so suddenly on 16th June 1995, bringing his world to an abrupt stop.
Remembering the fear he felt as a 17-year-old when the bullet punched its way into his body and lodged in his spine, leading to a loss of sensation below his chest and loss of power in his limbs.
“It’s like being buried neck-deep in wet sand,"Justin recalls.
"No matter how much you try, you just can’t seem to move. It was terrifying.”
The bullet that struck his spine had become deeply embedded and any attempt at a surgical excavation/extraction was entirely too dangerous and too risky.
A life forever changed by one rash decision. Completely paralysed from the chest down, he would require a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Helplessness. Hopelessness. Sadness.
Denial / Acceptance
Forced to rely on a wheelchair to get him around and his family to help him with the simplest tasks, lead to a major transition that touched every aspect of Justin's life.
His sense of self was scrambled beyond recognition and his body became more and more unfamiliar. Both life and limb would never be the same however he was adamant that he was going to walk again, contrary to the doctors’ predictions/diagnosis.
He said, "I thought, ‘You’re not going to tell me what I can’t do.'”
But there was no feeling, no control and when he wasn’t in bed, Justin was confined to a wheelchair; yet he was fiercely determined (against all odds) to use his legs again!
Recounting the very dark moments of personal change and his emotional struggle, he says much of the battle was trying to accept that he did this to himself.
Overwhelming feelings of guilt, shame and sorrow consumed him, threatening to cripple his recovery.
He had changed forever and one day he would have to confront this truth head on.
📸 Justin Govender
He struggled every day to accept his body’s limitations because he was terrified of the implications and what it could mean for his future.
Plunging back into the trauma, Justin remembers, "I was charged with uncertainty and anxiety as my body simply refused to co-operate! I refused to believe it nor would I accept that I might not be able to walk again!"
Sad. Powerless. Lost.
No matter how much Justin wanted to believe that he’d walk again, he realised he needed to accept himself the way he was at that moment.
Worried. Frustrated. Tired. Angry.
Defeatism / Resilience
It was a really long and hard-earned journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance as he started over to come to terms with a transformed life.
Catapulted into a whole new world, he had to work unbelievably hard to reclaim what we (the majority!) take for granted - the ability to live/move easily, and to be independent.
"First I had to learn how to get used to being in a wheelchair, what you can or cannot do,” explained Justin. “Then you have to learn how to do things differently".
One of the greatest discoveries a person makes is to find they can do what they were afraid they couldn't do.
- Henry Ford
📸 Justin Govender & his SA/London Cheering Squad
The human body, mind and spirit are amazing things!
There were many times where he was overwhelmed, but it was in these really difficult moments that he persisted.
"There is nothing more extraordinary than people who pick themselves up when they're down,"Justin comments.
'Life is big and messy and imperfect - it's simply part of being human; and yes, some of us struggle more than others and have to work harder just to show up every day. But you just can't beat the person who never gives up!'
Focus, focus, focus + stubborn courage.
This is what gives life it's resilience. This is what gave him/us hope.
Grit / Triumph
Despite the extraordinary leaps he made, he wrestled with himself constantly but he did not let it keep him from charting his own trajectory!
The day he discovered the magical power of basketball was the pivotal moment when he turned his anger, fear and angst into something constructive and positive - for himself, his community and his country.
📸 Justin & the South African (SA) Paralympians in Training
Fast, fun and competitive, basketball lit up Justin's world with hope and positivism and showed him a much bigger picture than he could have ever imagined!!
He's devoted all his energy to cultivating a winner’s mentality in the face of daunting odds.
Basketball became more than a game, it became a way of life.
Knowing that he was completely/utterly invested in, committed to and genuinely loved the game - was very exciting!
No longer swaddled in gloom and increasingly driven by a burning desire to be the best version of himself, he slowly began to reclaim a sense of himself!
There seemed to be an even greater sense of urgency about what he wanted to do and say.
Justin remarked, "It was time that I stopped waiting for a miracle to happen and started doing, to be the miracle".
📸 Justin & the SA Paralympians in Action
He was forced to deal with difficulties in the process of getting things wrong/right and whilst experimenting, and learnt that anything was possible, somehow.
It just required (enormous!) strength, (outrageous!!) boldness and (carefully considered!!!) risk-taking.
He was fizzing with energy and demonstrated boundless determination, passion and hard work that led him to the top of his game and the Paralympics.
📸 London 2012 Paralympic Games | O2 Arena
Recalling his triumphs and pitfalls, he said,
“I believe basketball in general, is a great metaphor for life.
It’s a game of desire and a question of will. You have to dig, hustle, push and pick up + throw the ball over and over, again and again.
Just like in life when you feel like you have failed, you stand up and try again and again, time after time but you never give up … you just keep on going!
Wise and reflective, he re-iterates:
"I never thought of failure as a setback instead I always thought of it as momentum, and I kept bouncing back with an abundance of optimism.”
Different Ability vs Disability
Justin counts himself lucky by being given a great opportunity to blaze a trail for others to follow.
He certainly lives, loves and embraces life to the fullest.
📸 Justin with Celes, his wife of 12 years
He states uncompromisingly that he is not defined by his imperfections.
“If you make it all about my disability, it’s quite reductive."
Fundamentally we are all human beings - we are equal just by virtue of being human, regardless of our physical differences.
“It’s about perception”, he says.
“Like our able-bodied counterparts, we all have strengths and talents. We all have things we love to do. It’s just that we do things differently as we all have different abilities.
If we embrace disabilities as one of those differences rather than a sign of weakness, we will be encouraging the kind of hope and understanding that we need today to amplify the awareness to see and be seen.”
Legacy / Inspiration
Writing this and revisiting the tragic incident so many years ago now, has been an extremely emotional and humbling experience.
I hope you’ve enjoy reading this as much as I have felt privileged to put it together.
Justin’s story and his work is vital and I wanted to boost/protect his legacy as an inspirational voice for people with disabilities
This is also my impassioned plea for a better world, among much else – primarily, to bring/raise more awareness around people living with disabilities like Justin, who reside on the sidelines rather than being cast into the spotlight and into the centre of all decision-making.
We need more people advocating for and pushing this positive message to empower people with disabilities.
📸 The Bystander Effect Cartoon
We need to scream again and again, as loudly as is humanly possible to destygmatise the conversation and enact a seismic shift, to ensure people with disabilities do not get ‘thrown away’ by/from society and are not forgotten!