Ausnew Home Care | Joel and Helen have been challenging stereotypes

Joel and Helen have been challenging stereotypes around relationships and disability from their first date

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On their first date at a pizza cafe in Timor-Leste, Joel and Helen Fernandes could feel eyes glued to them.

"People would come and stare and then call their friends, and they'd all stare at us as well," Helen says.

It was a level of visibility Helen wasn't used to, but over a decade together the couple has come to enjoy challenging stereotypes about their relationship.

An "interable" relationship is one between a person with a disability and a person without one.

Joel, 42, is from Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor, and uses a wheelchair.

Helen, 41, is an Australian occupational therapist.

Family forced to flee

The pair met in 2011, five years after Joel was involved in a serious road accident during Timor's violent civil war, when his family was forced to flee their home in the capital, Dili. 

A man lies in a hospital bed while his loved ones sit around him. Ausnew Home Care, NDIS registered provider, My Aged Care
A car accident in 2006 left Joel with a spinal cord injury.(Supplied: Joel Fernandes)

It was the middle of the night and Joel was asleep in the back seat of a car carrying seven passengers, which crashed into a tree. 

When he regained consciousness in hospital, hours later, Joel was unable to feel his legs. 

"I was in lots of pain. I was just like crying and I just didn't know what happened to me," he says. 

Joel was diagnosed with a spinal cord injury that means he's unable to walk and doesn't have any movement or feeling below his belly button.

Access to disability services in Timor-Leste was extremely limited, so Joel spent the next two-and-a-half years at home, mostly in bed, relying largely on his family.

"I felt like, 'What will I do with my life if I just depend [on] my family and I can't do anything,'" Joel says. 

Things started to change after the country's only disability support organisation gave Joel a wheelchair. 

"I started being independent and [learnt] to transfer [myself into my wheelchair] and do everything by myself a little bit better," he says. 

When Joel met Helen, a few years later, he had started teaching other people with disabilities in Timor-Leste to use wheelchairs too. 

"As I got to know Joel more, I discovered he was very determined and strong and pretty courageous to step out and do the things that he was doing," Helen says. 

'We were both pretty sure we'd get married' 

Although the pair hit it off, the prospect of a relationship was daunting. 

"Joel asked me a few times during our early friendship if I'd be his girlfriend, and I was ... I'd say, pretty scared by that," Helen says. 

Helen returned to Australia, but they kept in touch over distance, exchanging messages and calls. 

The couple say even after two years of dating, announcing their engagement to friends and family was a big step. 

A couple smile for a selfie. There is a tent in the background.
Helen says she was "pretty scared" at the idea of dating someone with a disability. (Supplied: Joel Fernandes)

"The dating phase was actually fairly short. I think we both were pretty sure by then that we would get married." 

A man playing wheelchair basketball lines the ball up to shoot.
Wheelchair basketball has helped Joel adapt to life in Australia.(Supplied: Joel Fernandes)

A week before the wedding, Joel moved to Australia and the couple are now settled in Brisbane.

It was a big adjustment at first but he soon made friends, particularly through playing wheelchair basketball. 

"My English was not very good. But, like, when you play ... they don't care who you are. Because a lot of them have disability as well," Joel says. 

Carer role reversed

The first two years of marriage held challenges for Helen too, when she was diagnosed with endometriosis and needed to have multiple surgeries. 

She said the experience changed her ideas about disability. 

"When we got married, I thought, 'I'll sort of be a caregiver for Joel' ... but I needed care for a lot of that [time] and so Joel became my caregiver," she says. 

Joel did a lot of the cooking, encouraged Helen to rest and drove her around to medical appointments. 

"He still drives me everywhere," Helen says. 

Joel Fernandes sits in a wheelchair, outside his car.
Joel Fernandes worked hard to regain his independence after experiencing a spinal cord injury. (Supplied: Joel Fernandes)

The couple said disability inclusion had improved in many areas, but there was still a lot that needed to change. 

"I think there's still some things that we don't talk about, you know, relationships ... maybe some of those deeper things," Helen says. 

"Joel and I fell in love like any couple."

'They're the luckiest people'

It's an issue that fellow wheelchair basketball player and Paralympian, Matthew McShane has noticed too. 

"People see someone in a wheelchair with a disability and they think the other half might be the carer or someone trying to do some form of charitable work, where it's not the case," he says. 

"Some of the best people I've ever met are in chairs and have a disability, and people that fall in love with them are the luckiest people."

Helen certainly counts herself as one of those people and Joel's friends count themselves lucky to know him too.

Two men using wheelchairs, talk together on the side of a basketball court.
Matthew says partners of people with disability are often mistaken for carers.(ABC News: Baz Ruddick)

Matthew says Joel always finds a reason to smile.

"Even when things aren't going his way, he's always smiling," Matthew says.

And if you ask Joel, that's because he's got a lot to smile about. 

"After the accident, I just felt like I couldn't do anything anymore," he says.

"But see, everything's happened. I got a job and got married and moved to Australia.

The ABC is partnering with International Day of People with Disability to celebrate the contributions and achievements of the 4.4 million Australians living with disability.


Source: ABC

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