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A spark of independence by Clifford Portelli – Spinal Cord Injury Day 2021

Published 05 Sep 2021

When he was 16 years old, Clifford Portelli had an accident which resulted in a spinal cord injury. Here he talks about how he developed the skills to get on with his life.


Before my accident at 16 years, I was very active and I used to practise swimming, dancing, diving and skateboarding on a daily basis.

I was always an independent person and I enjoyed doing chores for family members or helping others.

After my accident, which resulted in a spinal cord injury, I lost most of my independence as I had to be cared for again; for me, it was surreal to digest that situation.

Millions of questions crossed my mind: how would my family react? What would be my friends’ reaction? Would I have a girlfriend? My own family?

The dynamics of my life changed in a heartbeat.

My 16 year-old-brain couldn’t track my body; my limbs did not respond to my brain’s instructions.

I spent 24 hours a day thinking of how I could adapt myself to carry out at least basic tasks again, such as drinking, eating or simply scratching independently.

Although I was driven to re-learn what every able individual takes for granted, I could do only so much for myself.

Only when I was sent for rehabilitation abroad, I was made to face my worst reality by my physio when, from day one, she stated that I would never walk again.

After a grieving period, a psychologist followed me for days, until I was up and about in my wheelchair, gaining confidence.

I realized I needed to acknowledge my limitations to be able to move on. My eight months in rehab helped remove my tunnel vision and go further than what I envisioned to be my limits.

Looking back on my experience abroad, I remember that a multi-disciplinary team of professionals were prepared to work wonders to give me a good rehab. For them, rehab was a way to equip me with life skills and knowledge about my disability.

They showed me that I needed to get better, stronger and independent again. I remember my first shave on my own – it was like a battle with Jack the Ripper.

My confidence was boosting every day, with each small task accomplished. Every time I lifted a spoon, after I burnt myself with cigarettes or even hurting while trying to push myself.

Although advances have been made in the field of rehabilitation, we must work to push for better services. Persons like me depend for a lifetime on what is taught during those early stages.

Clifford and his wifeA few years after I came back to Malta, I met my wife Josianne and we started dating. She introduced me to her seven-year-old son Calvin and, before I knew it, we moved in together and I was a happy husband and a father.

At the time, there was no Aġenzija Sapport or care services and allowances. I spent 10 years looking for work. At the time, disability was projected in society more than the individual – although the same argument might still be valid today.

A lot of work must be done because life changes, and so do the individual’s exigencies. In 2002 I finally found fulltime employment and, nine years later, in 2011, I bought a second-hand car. A new amendment to legislation had to be made to accommodate drive-from-wheelchair vehicles to be on the Maltese roads. This was thanks to the help of many friends and, especially, my wife who was by my side when I had crazy ideas.

In 2016 my wife and I finally tied the knot.

Last year I had to scrap my first car and bought my second drive-from-wheelchair car.

These past few months have been devastating for everyone due to the pandemic. We all have stories that have moulded us forever.

But this year was also the hardest one in my life as, my wife, ‘the woman who walked with me’ was struck with cancer. I have never felt so helpless. She is now on her eighth chemo session and finally things are looking hopeful. I hope that that as a family we’ll have it better next year.

As a final thought I want to pass on this message to persons with disability: ‘Don’t wait for apples to fall from the tree – but make them fall’. Fight for what you believe is right, fight for your rights and make your voice heard with everyone, but especially with policy makers.