Life had just started to take shape for Mark Tonga when a freak collision at rugby training made him a paraplegic.
Nine years on, Mr Tonga is determined to break down the cultural and psychological barriers that prevent Polynesian people from accessing services like the ones he needed to rebuild his life.
The chair of Disability Council of NSW delivered an inspirational recount of his journey at The Oak manor in Oakhurst on Friday as part of a Pacific Island Family Day event.
“I was lying in bed in hospital and thinking to myself, ‘How am I going to do it [live]?’,” he said.
“As it happened services started appearing in front of me. I didn’t have much money...the costs of paraplegia are extensive.
“Only through seeking these services was I able to live a productive life.”
Mr Tonga said he felt especially compelled to share his story with young Pacific Islander men because he “saw himself” in them.
He said it was common in Polynesian culture for families to hide people with a disability, making their lives even more challenging.
“As Polynesians we do have a cultural inclination not to engage,” he said.
“I wanted to show my people here that it does not really matter what your abilities are, you can achieve just by applying yourself.”
The event was organised by several groups including Settlement Services International Ability Links, Pacific Islands Mount Druitt Action Network (PIMDAN) and Cook Islands Community Council.
PIMDAN president Alisa Peacock said the day’s goal was to expose the community to a range of educational, mental health and disability services in the local area.
“And also to really promote and talk about the issue of disability,” Ms Peacock said.
“Someone like Mark is an inspiration because he’s able to come out and say, ‘Hey, I’m a fully-functioning man in every way’.”
Mr Tonga said the first two years after his injury were “challenging” and he sympathised with the difficult process of applying for services.
“Even if you don’t find the service that suits you at first, you need to keep persisting,” he said.
“Life does not finish when you do hit a wall. As long as you’re breathing and you’ve got blood pumping in your heart you can still make a go of life.
“Especially in a country like Australia where the opportunities are infinite.”