There are inspirational people. And then there’s Julia Brouwers. I had the absolute pleasure and privilege of virtually meeting her recently, and her positive mindset sent my head in a spin. So much to mull over, to digest – to learn from. I could go on for pages, but in the interest of short reads on social media, here are some snippets from Julia’s incredible story. From swimming athlete to discovering her disability, to becoming a diversity and inclusion campaigner…

How it all started

Photo by Désirée Hofland

“One day I tried to stand up, but I couldn’t feel anything from my hips to my toes…”

At just 13-years-old, this happened to Julia Brouwers when she was at school. An athlete from a young age – starting professionally at just eight – she became a Dutch national champion in women’s relay. 

“I trained a lot” she tells me. “I was always in the pool, always training and I really enjoyed it. I said, OK, I will go to the Olympics when I am older. Then suddenly one day I was in class and I tried to stand up, but my legs were paralyzed. That changed my whole world.”

This shock came out of nowhere, with little warning.  It was to be an exhausting and unfathomable seven years before she got a diagnosis for her disability: hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (hEDS) – a connective tissue disorder. Julia even convinced herself she’d lost her mind and had made up her pain. In reality, her condition gives her a lot of joint mobility problems, and pain in her bones and muscles.  She recalls: “Recovery just never came. In my mind I wanted to do so much, but my body didn’t let me”.

I soon realised that this is not a tragic story; it’s one of resolve, resilience and remarkable determination, in the face of adversity. And of crazy wisdom – well beyond the years of someone so young.  

Shaping her new positive mindset

Despite an overwhelming feeling of ‘what now?’, coupled with plenty of down days when the pain was hard to handle, Julia got up one morning and said to herself: “There are a lot of things I cannot do anymore, but let’s focus on the things I can do”. For her, a stint at a rehabilitation centre was a gamechanger.

There were so many different stories. Everybody was following their own path and had their own struggles. Even if there was a person next to me that maybe was physically worse than me, they might have been mentally happier. And when I started speaking to psychologists and coaches, I really thought, hey, actually I am quite OK. What if I start believing it? And what if I start making decisions on things that I can do. I might still have a very good life.”

Photo by Kalen Hayman

This ability to turn turmoil into triumph may well be thanks to Julia’s athlete mentality. It crafted her positive mindset. She started studying coaching, exploring how she might be able to, in turn, help others. Then her mind turned to work and what she might do as a job. With that came a wave of insecurity, not yet understanding what she had to offer professionally. It was then she decided to put joining the rat race on hold and – with just a suitcase to her name – Julia went to volunteer in Ghana.

Finding a new purpose

Everybody wants to find a purpose, to feel welcome and that someone needs them. For me, to come to Ghana as a disabled person, I wasn’t disabled anymore – because the people just saw me, the kids especially, they just saw me as Julia.”

She admits, though, that not seeing her just as Julia was a big worry when she returned from Africa and started interviewing for jobs. Now working in her company’s diversity and inclusion team, she’s a big believer in changing cultures within businesses – knowing what it was like the first day she entered an office.

“It was terrifying for me to walk in that big office, to walk with my walker and knowing that no one else had one. But, if you’re not capable of doing everything in the normal way, you’re going to use your mind. You are going to use your brain in a more creative way. It’s nice to be with people from different backgrounds and with different experiences of life.”

Photo by Kalen Hayman

Her bravery inspired an online community

Julia then tells me the most ‘different’ experience she’s had recently is a candid post she put on social media about having a disability in the business world, along with a photo of her in her wheelchair. It was a brave move – one that filled her with trepidation. But the response has been overwhelming. With more than one million views and counting, Julia’s now hoping to spread greater awareness.  We can all learn a thing or two here about how it’s our own personal responsibility to craft a positive mindset.

Talking to Julia was an absolute eye-opener. It also made me look at the personal journey I had in lockdown re-evaluating my mental and physical wellbeing. Before she goes, she says something that’ll stay with me for a long time: ‘when something breaks, the light gets in’. I, for one, am going to remember this when I’m next feeling a little broken.

See the full interview video below!