Meet the wheelchair user who is “not disabled”

Dan Lombard works as a journalist – which isn’t exactly breaking news. What makes him special though is the fact that he types with his tongue, and he does so faster than many writers who type with their fingers. CHARLEEN CLARKE spends time with a man who insists that he’s not disabled…

Dan is both outspoken and funny. Within minutes of meeting me, he says that he doesn’t read Rolling Inspiration. I ask him why not. “I’m not disabled,” he insists. “So I don’t read magazines for people with disabilities. I have only a few disabled friends; I don’t travel in disabled circles.”

This is a surprising sentiment – considering the fact that Dan is a quadriplegic (he broke his C4/5 vertebra and severed his spinal cord while playing rugby when he was 18).

But, then again, Dan is a surprising guy. For instance, he works as a journalist for Game On sports magazine and MWP Media, writing about rugby. He types with his tongue – and at a mighty fast speed too (900 words in 15 minutes). “With the new phones a stick doesn’t register, so typing with my tongue was a natural progression. I have full control over my tongue, so I type pretty accurately,” he reveals.

His career as a journalist wasn’t planned. “I grew up in Durban. My dad was a paddle-skier and my uncle surfed. We loved the sea. I had dreams of becoming a marine biologist because I enjoyed the ocean … but I didn’t do science at school so that dream died. In later years, I planned to go overseas and become a long-haired beach bum. Now I am going bald so that dream has pretty much been shot too,” he says with a wry laugh.

Rolling Inspiration editor Charleen Clarke was privileged to meet Dan at the rugby.

Everything changed after that rugby practice session. “I broke my neck on a Tuesday and had surgery on a Wednesday. By Thursday I was moved into rehab. I only spent two days in intensive care; the norm is a minimum of two weeks. But I was incredibly fit at the time…” he recalls.

Dan was determined that his accident would not stop him from matriculating or attending his matric dance. “I left the hospital to attend my dance. The staff helped me into my tuxedo and wheelchair,” he remembers.

Naturally, he had to make a number of adjustments. “There were many changes that followed my accident. But I would not say that it was difficult. Things are difficult when you have a choice. When you don’t have a choice it’s not difficult – because you either do it or die.”

Upon matriculating, he went to university, where he attained a BA, majoring in religious studies and education. “Initially I wanted to be a psychologist but then I realised I could help people in other ways. Also, I figured out I probably wouldn’t make the best psychologist. Honestly, my life is full of problems. I am a high-level quad. I could not see myself sitting in an office listening to someone cry because their dog died. I would be thinking ‘Dude, get your life together.’ Plus I think people would have been uncomfortable, because they may have compared their (trivial) issues to mine.”

Dan was recently invited to see the Springboks play the All Blacks (sadly we lost; it was great fun anyway) by Scania South Africa. Pictured with Dan from left are Alexander Taftman, product and marketing director, Mark Erasmus, regional director Gauteng and Rikus Gouws, manager of Scania Finance.

While Dan acknowledges that he has problems, he says it’s not all bad. “My life is not difficult all the time. Writing allows me to create a world without problems. I have never felt sorry for myself because I am still alive and I am able to communicate. If I could not communicate, that would drive me insane,” he adds.

Like many people with disabilities, Dan says he does not want to be labelled as being “inspirational”. “Prior to my accident, I would never have believed I could cope with this. But I did. No one knows how you will cope until you are in that situation.”

He says his accident didn’t change him. “I don’t think it changed my personality; it just revealed my personality. I have always had this strength; I just never had an opportunity to show or use it.”

Dan attributes much of his attitude to the support and encouragement of his dad. “He is an amazing man; he has taught me so much. He is one of the reasons I don’t feel sorry for myself. But my dad says I give him more grey hairs in a wheelchair than out. Recently I was drinking flaming shots with my brother, who became distracted by a girl who was walking past. He set me on fire by mistake. Oh and the other day, I was dropped all the way down the stairs … my mates and I had been partying up a storm. Needless to say, my dad wasn’t too happy with either of these incidents,” he says with a wicked chuckle.

Sounds just like any run-of-the-mill 25-year-old, doesn’t he? And according to Dan, that’s exactly what he is.

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