When I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 2014, I struggled to see myself working at all in the future and I thought my strongman ambitions were over. Just over six years later, I can say that I’m still the same man: I still have my career, I’m still a family man and I’ve just come second in the World’s Strongest Disabled Man competition.
It was around midnight, late on the day that I had competed in the UK event last December, when I received a text message saying “Well done!” Due to COVID-19 restrictions, all the strongman competitors were spread out in different pockets around the world, such as the US, Australia and Germany. I already knew that afternoon that I’d beaten the other UK competitors to become Britain’s strongest disabled man – and I was really happy with that achievement.
Then came the message confirming I was second in the world. The news took a while to sink in and at first, I was trying to play it cool. But since then, I’ve done interviews and podcasts, been featured on the BBC website , and received many messages and even gifts.
So, what do I think now? My title made me reflect on this: something may happen in your life that makes you think you can’t achieve your dreams, but you can. It might be a different road, but you can still get to your destination.
What have I learnt about making judgements and seeing myself differently?
When I was first diagnosed with MS, it really hit me for six. My uncle has MS – one of around 130,000 people in the UK – so I already knew that the symptoms are unpredictable, and I was afraid for my future as I didn’t know what was coming. The pace of my life really slowed down and I stopped training at the gym.
Vulnerability was a new feeling for me. I’d always been known as ‘Big Dave’ – even during my time in the army, while everyone else went for a run, I was lifting weights. But suddenly I didn’t feel like that anymore. When I went out with my wheelchair, I used to try make a joke out of it, and I was thinking: “This isn’t who I am.” I thought people were seeing a different me, but this perspective was in my own head. Of course, I knew my friends and colleagues weren’t really judgmental; the change was all within me.
By 2017, I really needed something to pull me out of my boredom – and that’s when I met another ex-soldier who introduced my to disabled strongman. I instantly felt the same familiar rush and I was hooked. Returning to sport had a huge impact; it changed my outlook on life. It made me feel safe that I’m still the same person.
What’s my learning from this experience? Now if I have to stop what I’m doing, I’ll know that I reached a real high and I won’t regret any of it. If I have to take some downtime, I’ll be aware that there’s a way out of it and you will always find something to bring you back to a positive place.
Yes, change is happening for the good but more is needed
All in all, it took until 2019 to fully overcome my self-doubts. The acceptance I felt working at Siemens also played a part in that. I had joined Siemens Mobility in 2018 and immediately told my manager about my MS. I began in a much more hands-on role in logistics management – I was driving forklifts, going to sites; everyone knew they could come to me and I’d solve their problems! When my MS got worse, I was supported by the company and switched to my current role in customer account management.
But at first I asked myself: will the personal interaction stop and will I lose my identity in some way? My manager could see my potential and that I would fit into any environment and work well with customers, ensuring that I received training and got a mentor. Now, I’m still someone who people feel they can come to for support and I see this role as the next stage in my career.
My experience has been fantastic and I couldn’t have been treated any better – always being seen and respected as a person, rather than a disabled person. I do feel that change is happening for the good and Siemens is an inclusive workplace, but there’s still a way to go. We have set up a disability networking group – and this group has campaigned for a second lift, for example, which is being installed in our main building to support accessibility. This year we want to push the group to another level, raising even more awareness and collaborating with other parts of the company, if possible. We want to offer even more guidance to managers and give confidence to employees with disabilities who might be concerned about speaking up and asking for help. I want to reassure them with this final piece of advice: if you’re worried, don’t be stubborn – reach out to a colleague, manager or friend as you’re never alone.