July 19, 2018
Trevor Hirth has a little trick he uses to help people better understand disability.
The five-time Australian para-table tennis champion directs you to contort your hands in a very specific way, designed to addle the brain. He then invites you to wriggle one finger that he nominates.
Some people excel. Others laugh with embarrassment at how the apparently simple task proves utterly impossible.
The next in line always looks nervous. There is no way of telling how you will perform until you try.
As Trevor tries the trick on a group of high-ranking government officials, sports administrators and businesspeople in the Pacific island nation of Tonga, several local onlookers can barely hide their delight.
For some of these Tongans with a disability, it is the first time they have ever seen someone with a disability commanding a room and being lauded as a celebrity.
"Sometimes it is a long road for the education to sink in but if everyone works together you can draw inspiration from other people's stories," Trevor says, growing increasingly comfortable with his roles of educator, storyteller and celebrity.
Trevor is in the Pacific to contest the Tongan round of the International Table Tennis Federation's (ITTF) Oceania Tour event, but also as an ambassador for Smash Down Barriers, the Australian aid-supported sports for development and disability inclusion program.
"It is quite confronting," the 34-year-old says of Pacific attitudes to people with a disability.
"There are a lot of spiritual beliefs that disability is such a negative thing, especially for people who acquire disabilities.
"It is such a tough time and then they feel so isolated in their life. It is like starting life over again and that's why we want to spread knowledge and education, so people can be there for support and encourage them to participate in beautiful things like sport."
That attitude, and his own journey, resonates across countries and cultures and is the reason this thrash-metal musician with the bikie beard and the nickname "Necrohammer" has become an unlikely international pin-up boy for inclusion.
Living with a neuro-muscular disability since birth, table tennis was little more than a social giggle for the Melburnian until five years ago when, at a low point in his life, Trevor underwent a table tennis transformation.
"I did go through some troubled times, a little bit of depression at home, through having some bad jobs, a couple of family issues, things like that," he says.
"But once I got onto the Australian table tennis team, everything seemed to turn around.
"I had employment opportunities, I got to experience the world. It really opened my eyes to the perception of people with disability in Australia. In some countries around the world, people are only just starting to learn this."
As he says those words, just a few metres away in Atele Indoor Stadium in Nuku-alofa, world-ranked stars are battling rookie opponents in wheelchairs for international competition points.
Table tennis is not just inclusive, it is increasingly integrated, and proving a magnet for people with a disability across the globe.
"You see so many amazing athletes with so many different abilities and you are like; 'How are they doing that?'," Trevor says.
"I don't have to look far for inspiration."
Neither does anyone who meets "Necrohammer".
And if someone suddenly starts asking you to contort your hands, tell them you've already heard Hirth's para-parable, you already understand the power of empowerment, and to go try Trevor's Tongan trick on someone else.