Dean Clifford has spent his life confounding medical experts and scaling seeming insurmountable obstacles and the forty-year-old motivational speaker is not about to stop anytime soon.

Every morning Dean Clifford spends three to four hours tending to his body. He checks his hands and feet, his elbows and knees. Far from being exceptionally vain, Dean’s morning routine is how he ensures that he can do the motivational speaking that takes him around the world, work as an ambassador for DEBRA Australia and spend hours a week in the gym, lifting what he describes as extreme weights.

‘It’s a fairly full on process but I’ve got it sort of figured out, so I know what my limits are, I know how far I can push myself,’ he said.

Dean was born in 1979 with a severe version of Junctional Epidermolysis Bullosa, or EB as it’s commonly known, a genetic skin condition that causes the skin to be incredibly fragile.

‘As long as I can remember I’ve been doing the bandage routine every single day, which is about four hours every morning.

‘It’s just a matter of working out every single morning what I need to do to get the best out of my skin.

‘I describe [EB] as kind of like a loaf of bread. If you’ve got pieces of bread stacked one on one on top of each other, you could just push out the middle layer because there’s no butter or nothing to hold all the layers together to keep the strength and consistency there so my skin doesn’t have the anchors to hold it together.

I’ve got to be incredibly careful about absolutely every part of my life

‘My skin is incredibly fragile. It’s in the medical books as having the strengthen and consistency of basically tissue paper.’

To help heal and protect this delicate skin, Dean needs to regularly change his wound dressings with the subsidised dressings and bandages he receives from a government scheme called NEBDS*.

‘To not have to worry about how I am going to access the dressings and medical needs, well no words can accurately sum up how great that feeling is.’

‘So, I’ve got to be incredibly careful about absolutely every part of my life.’

When he was initially diagnosed, Dean’s parents were told he’d be unlikely to live beyond three or four years old. Today, after celebrating his 40th birthday in Las Vegas late last year, Dean says he enjoys proving the medical experts wrong.

‘They said by the time I was four my quality of life would be so bad that life wouldn’t be great. The outlook that was given to my parents wasn’t great at all, to be staring down surviving to be three years or four-years-old so yeah, it’s something that I’ve sort of classed as a bit of a personal hobby of mine to prove all the medical world wrong and be able to still be living a really quality, high standard quality life and be able to achieve everything that I’m achieving these days.’

And what he is achieving is pretty remarkable.

Image is of Dean Clifford in his home gym
From the airwaves to the speaking circuit

Two hours north west of Brisbane is the Queensland town of Kingaroy. It’s a small town with some big claims to fame, being home to Australian cricketer Matthew Hayden and naturalist Bob Irwin. It’s also where Dean Clifford grew up. And it’s where the seeds of his successful motivational speaking career where sown.

‘Straight out of school I was really lucky that the local radio station invited me to come along to work part-time,’ Dean said.

‘That eventually led me to talking a little bit about my life living with EB on air and in some of the radio programs.’

Soon, Dean was regularly working on air, co-hosting several radio programs. As his profile grew, organisations within the community started to get in touch and he began speaking at events and MC’ing. And the more Dean shared about his life, the more people around him told him how amazing his story was and encouraged him to look at doing motivational speaking.

‘I sort of was just blown away by the compliment, but I thought there wasn’t anything really special about my life story,’ he said.

But the idea stayed with him and years later, after what he describes as some difficult stages in his life, he thought maybe he did have something worth saying, a story worth sharing, some tools and tips that might be useful for others. 

‘I started to think about my life and think about what mental tools I’ve used and what things I’ve learnt. From there I came up with the idea for my first presentation and that was incredibly well received,’ he said.

I thought there wasn’t anything really special about my life story

With eighteen months, Dean was travelling around the country, receiving phone calls from the Prime Minister and speaking to groups as diverse as high school students and the Australian Federal Police.

‘[It] sort of happened very organically but incredibly fast from that first presentation.’

Dean says for most people his presentation is a slow burn. The mental tools his uses in his day-to-day life stick in the minds of the people he speaks to and when they face challenges in their own lives, those tools come back to them.

‘My presentation isn’t something that you walk out of the room thinking Okay, now I know how to make a million dollars. It’s not that kind of presentation. It’s just a real-life discussion. I’m sharing my story. I’m not putting myself up on a pedestal or thinking that I’ve got all the answers to the world, I just share my story, how I overcome all the challenges that I face.

‘It’s been an amazing journey and something that I absolutely love these days.’

Giving back

Dean’s motivational speaking career has given him a significant profile and it’s one he wants to use to give back to his community. While he has long acted as an unofficial ambassador of DEBRA Australia, the volunteer run not-for-profit that works to support those living with EB, he recently stepped into an official ambassadorial role and it’s something he’s thrilled to be doing.

‘I’ve [always] been incredibly passionate about raising the awareness, and hopefully raising the quality of life for everyone, young and old whether you’re severe or mild living with EB. It’s something that’s obviously really close to me living with such a severe version of EB so I’ve always been hugely passionate about trying to support everybody and raise the awareness as much as possible. So, to now be the official ambassador it’s a huge honour, it’s something that I’m thrilled to be able to hopefully continue on and make some really huge strides in the awareness of EB for the general public.’

But Dean wants to do more than that. He wants to inspire kids and young adults with EB to aim high, to dream big. Growing up in regional Australia, he never had a mentor, someone who also lived with EB, someone he could look up to. It’s why he’s so passionate about his now official role with DEBRA.

It’s about ok, we’re living with EB, but how can we still achieve whatever it is we want to achieve

‘I was incredibly lucky that I had a lot of support from my family and friends…and they helped me greatly growing up but there was nobody actually living with EB that I could go to get any advice from so I’m really proud to be still alive today for one to be able to hopefully inspire and mentor the kids these days that are living with EB,’ he said.

‘[EB] is physically and mentally a real challenge to stay on top of and stay healthy. So, if I can be there to help inspire the kids to show them that you can achieve big things in life and that you can have a really quality and productive life while living with a really severe version [of EB] it’s hopefully going to really help the kids… to see that someone can still work through it all and achieve some really remarkable things, hopefully that they can see with what I’ve achieved in my life.

‘For me it’s really that quality of life and day to day living that that I’m more focussed on and I’m hoping that quality of life can be as high as possible.

‘We shouldn’t have to think ok I’m not going to be able to work in the workforce or achieve my dreams whatever it might be.

‘I’m really passionate and focussed on making sure the kid’s lives and the young adult’s lives and the older adults like myself, still have a really high quality of life and have a really high desire to live life and achieve things.

‘It’s about ok, we’re living with EB, but how can we still achieve whatever it is we want to achieve and making sure that the quality of life and the goals are still there. It’s not just the doom and gloom of living such a severe and debilitating skin condition.’

Lifting and thriving

Dean Clifford has spent his life defying the odds. He says it’s all a matter of knowing his limits but also pushing those limits. And it’s in the gym where he has found the joy doing just that.

‘I’ve only been in the gym for the last 15 years or so, it was only something that we uncovered as a complete accident that I could lift these kinds of weights,’ Dean said.

These kinds of weights include up to 150kg at a time. It seems improbable given how fragile Dean’s skin is, but he says the variation of movement in the gym is what makes it possible.

‘That’s the bizarre aspect with my skin. I would class typing on the computer as more dangerous than being in the gym lifting weights.

‘That’s the thing that has all the medical world scratching their heads at as to why I can continue to lift the kinds of weights that I’m doing and my body continues to thrive under the extreme training that I do yet I can sit and type and I’ll end up with multiple problems on the tips of my fingers from typing away or if I try to walk for kilometres at a time then I’ll end up with huge problems on my feet from the wear and tear.

I would class typing on the computer as more dangerous than being in the gym lifting weights

‘It’s all about knowing your limits and knowing how far I can push myself and knowing what’s happening to my body and I’ll stop in the gym the second I feel that’s something starting to get damaged and then we’ll work out what I need to do.’

The medical world might be shaking their heads, but Dean is nonplussed. For him, this is just his life. From the gym to the speaking circuit to sidelines at Suncorp Stadium to see his beloved Brisbane Broncos play, and now with his role with DEBRA Australia, Dean will continue to defy the odds, to push the limits and to achieve big things.

To learn more about Dean’s motivational speaking of to make a booking, visit his website at www.deanclifford.com/

For more information about DEBRA, visit their website at www.debra.org.au/

For more information about NEBDS, visit their website at www.ebdressings.com.au/

Dean Clifford is lifting and thriving originally appeared in Issue 29 of Inform Magazine

Ready to read more? Try these Inform links:

Little dreamers dreaming big

The invisibility of an invisible illness

How the NDIS helped me to travel the world

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