Human Interest

Man with cerebral palsy is learning to overcome his disability

People without disabilities often view life with a disability as bleak. Babies diagnosed with a disability prenatally are often victims of abortion. Once they’re born, children with disabilities are at greater risk of abuse and maltreatment. Adults with severe disabilities can be pressured into assisted suicide in countries where it has been made legal, as without a strong support system, they may feel that they are a burden to those around them. Hollywood is even making romantic movies with just that plotline. Too often, people view life with a disability as meaningless, tragic, pitiable, and without dignity.

Andrew Short proves them all wrong. And a new video featuring his life and accomplishments shows that having a disability does not have to hold anyone back from leading a fulfilling and successful life:

Short was born with cerebral palsy after a difficult labor and delivery. Cerebral palsy is a group of movement disorders, and symptoms can include poor coordination, weak muscles, problems with vision, hearing, and swallowing, and difficulty speaking. “The worst trauma I’ve experienced, waiting for 20 minutes, watching for those breaths to begin,” his father, David Short, said. But Short began breaking down the barriers set before him early in life. “He learned to read early, much earlier than a ‘normal’ child,” he recalled. While he initially attended a special education school, he was eventually accepted into a typical high school, something he was very proud of. “He celebrates the date, every year, and that’s a bit more important than his birthday,” David said. Andrew has a degree in theology, and is now working on getting his master’s degree in disability studies. He’s also multilingual. “I speak three languages: English, German, and spastic, which is my native tongue,” Short joked.

Five years ago, Short met Australian army veteran and physical trainer Lee Campbell. “He walked into the gym and said, ‘Can you help me?’,” Campbell recalled. The two have a special relationship now. “He’ll throw around jokes that only Andy can throw around, that people will go, ‘My God, did that just come out?’,” Campbell said. But it was a tough start for the two of them.

Initially, Andrew was very weak. Campbell rated his physical capacity when they got started to be around 2.5 on a scale of 1 to 10. But Campbell worked with him, and Andrew worked hard. Eventually, he began to grow stronger. “He’s very hard on me!” Andrew said. “If it’s just an emotional, mental block, rather than a physical block, I won’t accept it,” Campbell said. They compete in grueling physical challenges — climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2013, competing in a Tough Mudder race in 2014. This year, he went on the Kokoda Track, hiking over 12 miles. “Kokoda was the toughest physical challenge of my life,” Andrew said. “I can’t believe that I made it.” But it wasn’t a surprise for Campbell. “I never look at Andy with a disability,” he said. “I mean, we all have our own issues. Everyone has something.”

But a few years ago, they noticed that his motor function was starting to deteriorate. David and Andrew began trying to find a way to make it improve again, which many in the medical community thought was impossible. They were told they were crazy for thinking that Andrew’s brain could change, especially with a lifelong disability like cerebral palsy. But those people were wrong. It turns out that his physical work with Lee Campbell has actually helped Andrew’s brain improve.

“By repeatedly doing the same task, you’re getting what’s called cortical excitability,” Professor Iona Novak said. She is the head of research at the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Research Institute at the University of Sydney. “So you’re lighting up sections of the brain. It’s like you take it from a gravel driveway to a smooth freeway.”

So Campbell’s work as a physical trainer isn’t just making Andrew’s muscles stronger — it’s changing his brain, too.

But while Andrew is doing well now, it hasn’t always been easy for him. He wanted to commit suicide at one point because he felt he was too much of a difficulty to his family and the people around him. “That’s a tragic thing to think,” Campbell said. “Sometimes you feel down about your disability, and that can lead to self-pity,” Andrew said. But luckily, Andrew had a strong support network around him that helped him overcome those thoughts. “If you have a disability, you need to do something about it,” Andrew said. “Or it will ruin you completely.”

Lee convinced David to go with Andrew on one of his physical challenges. “I quickly realized that Lee wasn’t just a pretty face,” David joked. “He had a vision.” And he does. “For me, it’s about getting Andy functional,” Campbell explained. And Campbell’s vision has worked. Andrew has seen steady improvement in his condition over the past two years in his fine motor skills, and his posture is improving. He is even learning to play the piano. “He can hold things, he can cook, he can do his buttons now,” Campbell said. “Andrew’s physical capacity now is a 7 or an 8. His confidence? He’s up there. He’s 12 out of 10, that kid.”

“We originally thought you could only change as an infant, but now we know you can change lifelong,” Novak said. The duo’s next challenge is Great Wall of China. And working with Campbell has improved the relationship between father and son, as well. “Before, Dave just saw this as a clinical problem,” Campbell said. “All of a sudden, his son doesn’t have a disability, or a dysfunction. We’ve been able to mold them back together, as a father-son relationship.” He was close with his mother, though.

“I consider myself to be one of the most fortunate people ever to be born in Australia, because of Mum,” Andrew said. “When I was born, she always wanted me.” She was diagnosed with cancer, which worsened his anxiety. Eventually, she succumbed to the disease. “I miss her dearly,” Andrew said. But losing his mother didn’t deter him from his physical training. He kept at it, despite his emotional pain. “You just think, wow, how amazing is this guy,” Campbell said.

It’s a sentiment that Andrew now agrees with. “I am amazed at what I can do.”

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