Shaun Pianta is more than a Paralympian. Shaun is living proof that there is nothing more powerful than finding meaningful work.
Shaun comes from Collie, WA, a small coal-mining town. Shaun had quite a “normal” upbringing in Collie, went through school smoothly and at the end of Year ten decided to leave school and start an apprenticeship as a Boilermaker Welder in a small company in town. Everything was going smoothly, he was acquiring new skills and enjoying work.
Shaun has almost finished his apprenticeship, and he decided to go on a trip to Bali with some friends. “I actually wasn’t meant to go but decided at the last minute to go, I had to borrow the money from my brother to go. This was my first overseas trip without my parents, so we were all super excited about the trip and keen to get going. We were over there for the first five days and having a blast,” Shaun said.
The next part of the story, however, is pieced together from Shaun’s friends, as Shaun’s memories of the day are very cloudy.
The day that it all happened, Shaun had planned a white-water rafting trip for the group. Although he awoke feeling a little sick, he didn’t want to let this stop him from going. “On the drive up to the spot I kept asking my friends what are we doing, where are we going – they originally said, are you serious you know we are going white water rafting, you organised it. As I laughed that off a few minutes later I asked the same questions, they thought I was winding them up.”
Things escalated very quickly from here. Shaun kept falling over, couldn’t see his friends handing him a bottle of water, and had no strength to paddle in the raft, “I was getting thrown around and then my friends decided to lie me down in the middle of the raft for the remainder of the trip. By now I was 100% blind and didn’t have the strength to walk. I had to have four people carry me up the hill, at this stage, everyone was starting to panic and we weren’t sure what we should do,” Shaun said.
Not long after, Shaun was in a Balinese hospital where various tests were run and his friends were told he needed to be evacuated back to Australia immediately. “Everyone was shocked and panicked and didn’t know what to do but got on and made all the arrangements. At this point, I was going in and out of consciousness and every time I came back to consciousness they had to explain again and again what was going on,” Shaun said.
On arrival back in Perth, doctors started to make their own diagnosis, Shaun had kidney failure and was very ill. The cause was not able to be explained. Shaun recovered enough to be able to leave the hospital and over the next 12 months, his vision improved to what it is today, which is around 10%. At this point, Shaun had to accept that this was permanent. Shaun had no idea how he was going to go about getting back into work, having been a Boilermaker before he became blind. “I didn’t know who could help me and every idea I had, there was some barrier I came up against, where my vision would stop me going any further,” Shaun said.
Shaun then found work on a very different path, as a professional skier. Shaun first went skiing in 2013, deciding then that this was something he wanted to do and that he wanted to compete at the Paralympics. In 2014 he moved to Jindabyne, NSW and went skiing with anyone who would take him out and let him follow them. “Throughout that winter I was invited along to a few training sessions with the Paralympic squad. I was then invited to join the team and head to Europe to compete. I couldn’t believe the opportunity I was being given, it was exactly what I wanted to do, and it gave me direction and purpose again,” Shaun said.
In November 2014 Shaun and his team took off to Europe where they had four weeks of training in Austria before the races. The training was going well, Shaun was having a great time and then the week before the first race, Shaun had an accident and broke both of his legs. That night he had surgery on both legs and spent the next ten days in the hospital before he was flown back to Perth.
Shaun found himself with even more challenges to overcome and felt his path changing again. He spent the next three months in a wheelchair, then six weeks on crutches, and had to work through some very challenging times both physically and mentally.
After seven months Shaun returned to skiing, working through the challenges and fears of an accident happening again. Over the next few years, Shaun competed all over Europe and North America, a highlight being the 2017 Para World Championships in Italy. Shaun was training to compete at the 2018 Winter Paralympics and everything was tracking nicely towards that until six weeks before the games Shaun injured his ACL whilst training in Switzerland. “My whole world turned upside down again, my dream was so close I could almost touch it but now it was over. The next day I was back on the plane heading home,” said Shaun.
Faced with yet another challenge, Shaun pushed through and was able to compete, after an intensive three-week rehabilitation program and provided he wore a steel knee brace. He met the team back in Aspen, “I finally got to achieve my goals in competing in the Paralympics although my performance was not where I wanted it to be, but I was still extremely excited.”
Soon after Shaun returned home to have ACL surgery, a 12-month process. Shaun decided it was time to retire from skiing as his body had taken too much punishment. This meant facing unemployment again.
“Now that I was finished with sport, all the previous uncertainties of my employment options came flooding back to me and once again I was lost for direction. I started to look for people to assist me in looking for employment and in my online searches I came across atWork Australia.” Shaun said.
After the first initial appointment, atWork Australia were so impressed with his inspiring story and motivation, they offered him a job as a DES Ambassador. In this role, Shaun travels Australia sharing the benefits of disability employment with job seekers, employers, community organisations and the like. Shaun’s work helps educate and inspire people about Disability Employment Services, having experienced himself, firsthand, how DES can change people’s lives.
“Work has empowered me.” – Shaun
Since Shaun began his role as ambassador for atWork Australia, he has shared his shared his story many times and inspired many people. Shaun’s main goal is to help other people know that no matter their disability, they can find good work that can change their life.
“By sharing my story, experiences and struggles to find employment with a disability I hope others can see that employment can be possible for them too and that there is people and organisation out there willing to help”