Michelina Pelosi has recently joined the team here at Total Ability assisting Paul and Geoff, but there’s much more to her story: Michelina has had a remarkable journey in life – one worth sharing.
Aged only 18, a tragic road accident in 1989 left Michelina with an L2 spinal cord injury. Michelina’s journey since has been one of profound self-analysis that has led to self-discovery and ultimately self-development.
It has left Michelina with a deep sense that her ‘calling’ was to help other people who felt that their life had been ‘broken’ in some way, much as her accident had initially left her seemingly ‘broken’.
She now is a sought-after educator in three distinct but related areas: helping young people through adversity, presenting on road safety, and raising disability awareness.
Michelina’s story certainly didn’t start with her accident, but it was the catalyst for a huge upheaval and eventual reassessment of her life. We asked if she minded sharing her story.
“I know this is going to sound strange, but in some respects, I came off lightly from my accident. I can’t recall anything until I woke up in the air ambulance the next day heading back to Sydney, so I don’t mind talking about it. Other family members have traumatic recollections and don’t like to speak about it.”
“My extended family were driving in two cars to Adelaide. It was Boxing Day, 1989.”
“I had just finished my HSC and had my life all worked out: attend University, a career in hotel management, travel the world with my work then settle down to have a family by the time I turned 30. All that changed in an instant.”
“I was in the car driven by my Uncle. My Dad was driving the car ahead. We had been taking breaks every 2 hours and doing all the right things.”
“A car travelling in the opposite direction came onto our side of the highway. My Dad managed to swerve to avoid a collision, but my uncle wasn’t so lucky, and the car hit us head-on.”
“My Uncle died instantly as did the other driver. I had been sleeping in the back and my seatbelt wasn’t on properly. My friend sitting next to me had injuries but because she was awake and her seatbelt in the right position, she didn’t suffer the same spinal cord injury.”
“The other driver had, ironically, been driving back from Adelaide to Sydney and had fallen asleep due to fatigue.”
Recovery and Reassessment
Michelina feels that in terms of her mind, not just body, her recovery took many years.
“There isn’t a set pathway. Everyone has different injuries, different outlooks and mindsets. So people come to terms with what has happened to them at different speeds and in different ways.”
“I remember being told around the 7-year mark that it takes 10 years to fully recover from something as traumatic as my accident and injury. Hearing that made me start to self-assess a bit more and look inwards at how I was feeling about my situation and where my head was at.”
“I used to talk about my life in terms of ‘before’ and ‘after’ the accident. I look back and see that as a sign that I hadn’t yet fully accepted what had happened.”
Michelina also notes another event a short while later as a pivotal moment in her journey.
“In 1997, when working for Qantas, I was selected to attend the Johnson & Johnson New Leaders Forum held at Duntroon Military College in Canberra.
“I was the only person in a wheelchair and had to stay ‘off campus’ in a hotel because the college accommodation wasn’t wheelchair friendly.”
“One of the keynote speakers was the AFL Legend Jim Stynes, sadly no longer with us due to cancer. I expected footie anecdotes, but his presentation couldn’t have been more different. What he said has never left me.”
“He introduced me to the idea of ‘ego’ and ‘spirit’ being the two ‘voices’ in your head that compete for your attention and decide how you act or react to situations.”
“The ego protects us, especially where we are fearful or perceive danger – we need it for self-preservation. However, it often stops us doing things by creating self-doubt when we need to listen more to our ‘spirit’, the more positive force telling us anything is possible.”
Stynes asked his audience to think about what they would want written on their tombstones and asked for volunteers to share with the group. Michelina felt inspired to push herself to the front, presenting hers as “To Have Broken Down The Barriers for People in Wheelchairs”.
It was the spark to a career change, the moment she decided to become an educator.
“I hoped to help people with disabilities have a shorter period of recovery than I experienced by learning from what I had been through. As my journey of self-discovery continues, I realise that I have more to offer to an even broader audience.”
Disability Awareness & A Life Unbroken
Michelina’s work as an educator continues to evolve.
In terms of disability awareness, she recognises that there is more to be done than just educating people who don’t have a disability about issues like accessibility.
She now also educates people with disabilities about other disabilities, as well as helping them figure out how to recover more quickly by using the insights from her experience.
“My main aim was to give advice to people with disabilities that I wish I’d been given earlier in my recovery, advice that helps people accept their situation, allows them to move on and create a rich life, a sense of purpose.”
“I’ve come to realise that people with disabilities could also learn more about other disabilities as it’s easy to become focused on yourself.”
Michelina saw how her experience and insights had wider benefits across the community.
“I am now working with young people who may not have a disability but feel that their life is ‘broken’ in some other way.”
“I hope that I can help them build resilience, self-belief and teach them how to balance their ‘ego’ and ‘spirit’ so that they don’t limit themselves and feel that they are tied down.”
“Unfortunately, this is needed now more than we’d like to acknowledge. Many young people are doing it tough and struggling to find the right mental strategies to cope with life.”
Michelina’s holistic outlook means that wherever she speaks, people may take away more than the specifically intended message.
“I was contacted after one road safety presentation by someone who said my talk had reignited her passion for accessibility in design, and that she was aiming to become a University Lecturer so that she could educate architecture students on the importance of incorporating accessibility into new plans. To me this was so satisfying – the sort of outcome I’ve dreamt about achieving.”
Driving As Freedom
Despite the road being the cause of tragedy and her injury, Michelina also noted the importance of being able to drive herself, in terms of giving her a much-needed sense of independence and freedom.
“I can see how people looking after someone with a disability, especially a parent looking after a child, would be very protective, but I hope that people also get the message – whether that’s parents, professionals involved in rehabilitation, Occupational Therapists, even Driving Instructors – that driving is possible even for people with high level disabilities.”
“I had driving lessons soon after my rehab finished in May 1990 and got my license in September that year. The most difficult time I had was the three months waiting for my modified car to arrive.”
“The ability to get in the car and go for a drive, just get out of the house, was immense for my mental well-being. I now dread the day my car goes in for a service!”
Michelina is also excited because she is about to take delivery of a new car with some new hand controls.
“Obviously my new car will have Total Ability controls. I say obviously, not only because I work here, but because the new controls are much easier on my arms than my current ones”.
“Not being able to use my legs means that I use my shoulders and elbows constantly. As I get older, I realise that I have to do everything possible to ensure these joints don’t wear out. Without them, I will be more limited in what I can do.”
“I was lucky that through my peer support work I met with older people with disabilities and have good insight on what is ahead of me.”
It means selecting a car with lighter steering, but also equipment that reduces stress on those joints.
“The new car has a Fadiel “trigger” accelerator with an extension that allows me to accelerate with two hands on the wheel, a Fadiel push brake, and the ability to engage and disengage the handbrake easily, which will give my arms a break when sitting at a red light.”
“I have to give a shout out to the Driving OT, Hannah Snell, who took me through the NDIS process. After the initial consultation we looked at the conditions on my license and saw that I could use a wide range of hand controls. We tested a few different set-ups and equipment, and I was happiest with Total Ability hand controls.”
“Hannah wrote up the report with her recommendations, it was accepted and approval received.”
The Road Ahead
Michelina’s desire to help others by sharing her insights and experiences means that 2019 and beyond will be a very busy year. She has no regrets.
“People may find this hard to believe, but I can’t say that I wish my accident didn’t happen.”
“I’m now doing many things that I would never have done. I have found an incredible purpose for my life. It’s all been part of my journey.”
As well as new speaking engagements, Michelina is committed to writing a book based on “A Life Unbroken”.
“My spirit voice tells me that I can do it and I will do it”.
We don’t doubt it. Michelina’s writing skills are very much in evidence on her blog which we highly recommend.
The word ‘inspiring’ gets thrown around a lot in the area of disability, but in the case of Michelina it’s a well earned accolade. It’s a privilege to work with Michelina, a humble, wise and generous spirit.