I truly meant to write this sooner but I have actually been waffling a bit. So much to write about, so little time! There’s Chris Rock at the Oscars and him slamming the whiny ones about lack of colour at the Academy Awards! There’s the shocking political race in the U.S. where I’m waiting for the punchline on Donald Trump. There’s even Kanye West, poor little poor boy who actually Tweeted…”Don’t donate to building schools in Kenya, donate to Kanye who’s 53 million dollars in debt!” (I’m paraphrasing). What a tool! So you see, I have been conflicted, to say the least. Then it hit me. IT’S MY 35th ANNIVERSARY!
In 1981, the United Nations declared the first ever “International Year of Disabled Persons”. It sounded warm and fuzzy. A nice gesture to give some props to the handicapped. It probably wouldn’t actually “do” anything. That’s what I thought. That’s what a lot of people, especially those with Disabilties, thought. I was wrong. The verdict on everyone else’s point of view is highly personal and I respect their take on the subject. My take…It Changed My Life!
In 1981, I was a disc-jockey at a Regina, Saskatchewan FM Rock Radio station. I had gone to school for two years earning a diploma in Broadcasting from Mount Royal College (now MRU) in Calgary. My parents were so proud that I was earning an honest living and not on welfare. I had landed a job in an industry that back then, didn’t typically hire the handicapped. Most important to me, I was working in a position where my voice and training mattered more than the novelty of having no arms. Looking back now, I wasn’t addressing the “elephant in the room”…Me!
I was hiding. I actually find it amusing now but it also makes perfect sense. The world wasn’t ready for someone like me. It’s barely coping in 2016. I say that with zero bitterness, by the way. From the time I was little in the 1960’s, I truly didn’t understand the big deal. Honestly, I always thought I was completely “normal”…to me! Sounds inspiring, huh? Maybe it is, but that’s not why I thought it! I “believed” it! I have also used a line in my talk for years; “My biggest challenge was people and an ignorant society” and again, not a bitter observation. Under my breath, I had another expression I never publicized…”That’s just stupid!” Sorry for sounding rude but sincerely, I could never make sense of why people didn’t “see” the real me, so without any actual intention that I can recall, I worked alone in a booth, played music and commercials, spoke anonymously into a microphone and “never” talked about having no arms! Then it happened!
I was a “victim” of my own success. I started my employment with CFMQ-FM Radio as an all-night DJ. It was actually it’s own culture with the likes of “Wolfman Jack” making it a mystical job. I didn’t last long as I was promoted to evenings. Remember, this was “old-school” radio with vinyl albums and not a computer in sight! I actually had a “following” so in what can only be described as “destiny”, I was about to leave the booth. A local junior high school was having a Career Fair and I was specifically requested to attend and conduct a small group seminar on a career in Broadcasting. Wow! I was so conflicted. I had made a few short speeches in my life as Easter Seals “Timmy” in 1977 but nothing like this. It actually sounded like fun. I had a meeting with our station manager who encouraged me to make it a big Public Relations event. I could take the “Rock 92” van, hand out “Rock 92” bumper stickers and wear my “Rock 92” vinyl jacket. I was 20 years old! Could I actually be “cool”?
So early in January of 1981, I pack up the van, headed to the school, was led to my seminar room, which also turned out to be its own destiny…it was the music room. The students trickled in and I had a weird DejaVu moment. My toughest time in adolescence was junior high and when I graduated high school, I swore I’d never set foot in a school again! Huh! Obviously, the audience was in awe of my celebrity status. They just kept staring in disbelief. I was introduced by a teacher, I stepped up to a microphone on a stand and started into my ad-lib talk about FM Radio. I was about ten minutes in when I realized, speakers usually take questions so I interrupted myself to make that reference. Wow! All fifty of the seventh grade students put up their hands. I was a bit concerned that I’d never finish my actual program but a promise is a promise. I randomly chose a boy in the front row, so he stood up and with surprising confidence blurted out…”How do you go to the bathroom?”
Wow again! I didn’t see that coming. How do you answer a question like that? Oh, and by the way, not really a “radio question”. I’m sure I blushed, couldn’t find an appropriate response to the specific question and seconds turned to hours, but somehow I recovered. I clearly recall saying; “That’s kind of personal but a good question. Clearly, I am not comfortable describing how but I will tell you I need someone to help me with my pants because having no arms, I can’t do the button and zipper so I have lot of amazing friends and a roommate who don’t mind helping me”. That’s caused a ripple of uncomfortable laughter, which I somewhat surprisingly, wasn’t offended by and it was short lived because the boy next to the one who asked the first question blurted out, “Why don’t you have arms?”. Also a good question. As you might imagine, the talk morphed very quickly from a career advice session to my first ever seminar “all about me”. Nothing but pure poetry saw me finish by grabbing a drum and sticks that were nearby and ad-libbing a moment that would become my signature story. I asked the audience to close their eyes and not watch me while I played for 30 seconds at which point I would shout and they could open their eyes and watch. The idea was simple. If I sound like a regular drummer with your eyes closed, then with your eyes open, I still am. It’s not what I “can’t” do but what I “can” that counts! The reaction was priceless! Because of my familiarity with current events as an “on air personality”, I finished by making a reference to the International Year of Disabled Persons asking my audience the same thing I had asked my groups as “Timmy”…”Don’t see a disability, see a person…just like you and me”!
it seems a cliche was born. So was a career. I just didn’t know it yet! I often say in my talks these days; “You can’t make this stuff up!” It is true. Two weeks later, I get a call from a friend of mine I’d met at some telethons I’d started appearing on in the late 1970’s. His name was Lee Bussard and Lee had Cerebral Palsy. If you don’t know what that is, Lee’s umbilical cord wrapped around his neck during birth and the brief lack of oxygen caused minor brain damage that often results in CP. Lee walked funny, slurred his speech and had spastic body movements. He was also hilarious! He was also brilliant! He was calling because he had a job offer. He also knew about the International Year but he did something dramatic. He was awarded a huge federal government grant from UN funds to create and conduct “awareness seminars” in schools across the Province of Alberta. He had so many schools booked, he needed help. Then he asked….ready? “Have you ever spoken to kids?” Well, I had a ready answer; “Absolutely. I even played a drum for them and blew their minds!” At 20 years old, I wasn’t real philosophical…I was greedy! I explained to Lee about the two years of college, having proud parents and an honest job and a commitment to my radio station and the public. He offered to double my wage. It took me ten seconds! I accepted his offer.
On March 2nd, 1981, I gave my first ever “paying speech” in a small Northern Alberta town called High Level. Since that day, and through several reinventions, I have given over 4,000 talks to over 2,000,000 people on five continents around the world. I could go on for several pages about what it has meant to me but allow me to simply end with what seems a quite narcistic observation…
“HAPPY ANNIVERSARY…TO ME!