Compo a long time coming
Thalidomide survivor Barry de Geest was born with no arms, short legs and three toes on each foot.
But the Pakuranga resident hasn't let it cramp his style and says there isn't much he can't do.
He is one of 21 New Zealanders and more than 100,000 people worldwide affected by the severe effects of a morning sickness drug given to some expectant mothers during the 1960s.
A class action by New Zealand and Australian victims against German pharmaceutical company Grunenthal, and thalidomide's Australian distributor, Distillers, bought by British company Diageo in 1997, was settled this week.
The Victorian Supreme Court awarded compensation of $99 million.
The deal is bittersweet for Mr de Geest because it means a separate class action against Grunenthal will be dropped.
Fairfax Media, owner of the Eastern Courier, revealed last year that the German drug maker ignored and covered up repeated warnings that thalidomide could damage unborn babies. Files from the Grunenthal archives exposed a 50-year global cover-up.
"I will never get justice which to me means making the original owners of the company admit to and acknowledge what they did to us," Mr de Geest says.
"They will never be held accountable for the 100,000 babies affected. Forty thousand of those babies died at birth and 20,000 were set aside to die - I'm just lucky my mother fought for me."
Mr de Geest was born in Oamaru in 1960 and says the fact his mother only took the drug once shows its force.
"She didn't feel good taking it so stopped. Thalidomide affects the nervous system. And the disability of the child depends on when it was taken during the pregnancy. Obviously Mum took it in the early stages because all my limbs are deformed."
Growing up was a challenge and he had no-one to relate to or compare his disability with.
"I felt like I didn't belong on this planet and that I wasn't a human being."
But Mr de Geest says he got on with life despite feeling isolated.
"Mum was my rock - the person who was there through everything."
Mr de Geest was in and out of different jobs after he left school but didn't find his true career until he realised he had a voice and learnt how to use it.
"I decided I needed to speak out about disabilities and show people what it's like to live like this. And it's been quite exciting because in the past 30 years I have seen great change.
"I was involved with helping change the Building Act, disabled access to public transport and making seats for disabled people at the movies."
But his biggest campaign started six years ago.
He was part of a group that lobbied for the compensation announced on Tuesday and has tracked down a number of previously unknown New Zealand survivors who will be among those receiving the 20 annual payments.
Each recipient signed a confidentiality agreement about the amount they receive which is based on the level of disability.
Barry has already had three of the 20 payments.
"This will make a huge difference to survivors. Having it recognised that the disability is due to the drug is an amazing thing."
Mr de Geest says every day is a struggle but he knows what he wants and there's not much he can't do.
"The discrimination and being treated as a non being, or someone who's not capable of making your own decisions, is the hardest part."
But despite it all, he says his life is "barrelling" forward.
"Life is great. I have two great businesses, a wonderful partner and an amazing son.
"While you can say in a lot of respects there is the grim side to my life there's also the really good side.
"You've got to make life what you want it. There's no point sitting around moping."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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