one-on-one with kevin michael connolly

armed-and-ready-hawaii-pictures-1When I was growing up, my dad owned a hardware store. That means he was always inventing new devices that would help me do everyday things like any other kid would. I remember him making me a jump rope with a handle I could tie around my prosthetic hand and drafting a few ideas for a flipper hand that would help me swim faster. But he never came up with anything as extreme or as exciting as the many contraptions we’ll be seeing on the new show Armed & Ready.

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of interviewing the show’s star, Kevin Michael Connolly. Kevin, who was born without legs in 1985, has spent the last few years traveling the world on a skateboard and snapping photos of people who stare at him. He penned his memoir Double Take in 2009 (a great read, and he kindly signed my copy). Now he’s taking it to the next level in Armed & Ready, trying new extreme sports and undertaking new and dangerous adventures across the country. I sat down with a handsome and confident Kevin, his skateboard propped against the adjacent wall, at Travel Channel headquarters to ask some questions about his latest project:

What’s your favorite of the places you went to while filming Armed & Ready?

Probably the coolest place I’ve been to while filming the show has been in Hawaii. In Kona, the Big Island (which is where we shot), you go inland and you can be on a 12,000-foot-tall mountain. During the mountain-boarding sequence when we’re up there riding around on this thing, we actually even had trouble getting the engine going not because of any mechanical failures, but just because the air is so thin up there. It had a tough time sucking oxygen. But then you drive a couple hours and you’re surfing. So, you know, the amount of biodiversity there was just jaw-dropping. It was really cool.

armed-and-ready-smoky-mountains-picturesWhat was your favorite of all the MacGyver-like tools and contraptions you built during Armed & Ready?

Of all the things we made during Armed & Ready, I would say the customized street luge was probably the coolest. Obviously no one without legs has ever been street luging before. So not only did we have to figure out A) if it would work, but also B) how I would stop. If you watch the sport of street luging, you’ll see the first thing they do if they need to stop is they put their feet down. So not being able to do that and going up and above 50 miles per hour, you freak out a little bit. And so the local guy that we met down there, my guide, he ended up building a little brake system into the street luge, which as far as I know is the first time that’s ever been done. So it was cool to be able to integrate something into it that just let me do what I needed to do.

Do you have a mantra or motto that you follow every day?

The one I have is not necessarily a mantra. It’s kind of something I say after I’ve done something particularly stupid, which is “Not dead yet.” Not dead yet, we’re good! But in terms of a motivating mantra, I don’t think anything beyond the basic “Oh, here we go!” Those would probably be my two.

Did you ever have the mindset that you had to prove yourself more because you don’t have legs?

I don’t think so. I certainly don’t have a competitive chip on my shoulder in terms of needing to go out and accomplish something in spite of not having legs. That’s never really entered my lexicon. It’s been more just the fact that there’s so many things that are unknown to me. I’ve never heard of a legless guy going out and street luging or a legless guy going out and skydiving. And so a lot of those unanswered questions are really what kind of drives me to do what I do. I’m naturally a really curious person and, more often than not, that gets me into trouble.

armed-and-ready-sneak-peek-picturesIn a promo video on the Travel Channel website and in your book, you said that you never really felt like you contributed to a group. Do you feel that traveling and seeing the world have helped you feel like you can contribute?

Yes, one of my main hopes for the show – obviously I hope everyone watches it and really enjoys it, etcetera – but I hope there’s a very small number of people who are going to see this and not get inspired in a “Oh, I think I can go out and do this” way, but get inspired in a “Oh, I can go to my garage and make a custom street luge and go out and do this for myself” way, if that makes sense. I really hope that somewhere out there there’s someone like me who’s seven or eight years old in second or third grade and the most I could ever hope for is that their life and their social life is made a little bit easier by the fact that this is out there and visible now.

What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve ever done?

The most outrageous thing I’ve ever done, I would say, was fake-chopping my leg off and squirting 25 gallons of blood that was made out of clothing dye onto people. I still feel really bad. It was fun for the theatrics, but I actually feel bad because I know we ruined clothes. I mean, my skin was red for 3 or 4 days following. So all these people getting showered with blood probably thought it was really funny until they got home later that night and realized it wasn’t coming out. I do remember us getting kind of glared at by a couple elderly people once we finished with the float. I quickly got out of there; I didn’t want to deal with whatever fallout was going to happen after doing that.

I read on your blog that there’s going to be a film version of your memoir Double Take. Is that still happening?

That is still in development, yes. There’s no greenlight or casting process yet. So I’m just more focused on not dying and making this show good, which actually tend to run hand-in-hand. Making the show good definitely brings you close from time to time.

Would you be playing yourself, or would they choose another actor?

We’ve had that discussion. They’ve definitely told me that I would probably need to play myself, but beyond that I really try to ignore it. Until that moment happens, I’m going to kind of not deal with it. I’m very good at denial and pushing things away, a common trait in men in their late 20’s, right?

I know in the book you mentioned that your hands are pre-arthritic. Does your body take a lot of wear and tear due to not having legs?

I think so. I mean, I would also say that any body would take a lot of wear and tear based off the stuff I’ve done. You compete in five X Games and then you do a show where you’re undertaking a new crazy sport every week, and your body’s going to take wear and tear, legs or not. I think the only difference with me versus someone else is that the damage gets placed in different areas – my hands in this case rather than my knees or my ankles or something like that.

I know you wrote about your ex-girlfriend in your book. (The parting scene made me cry, by the way.) I was wondering: is it difficult dating when you travel so often?

Yes, a little bit. I don’t really date a ton anymore, or right now. It seems like most people my age in their late 20’s are getting married, houses, or children. And none of those are really on my priority list. No would be the answer. I feel very comfortable going up and asking someone for a date. I mean, the worst-case scenario is you get rejected.

525612_10151525309172642_939465182_n

Now that you’ve traveled the world, what country/state/city is next on your list?

Well, in terms of personal travel, I’ve always really wanted to go to Russia. But in terms of what I would do next for the show: one of the most common questions I always get asked is, “how do you drive?”.  And trying to answer that, whether it be through racecar driving or rally car driving, would be really awesome. For anybody who is paralyzed or doesn’t have legs, you know how the basic hand controls work. But everyone has to drive an automatic. So the question would be: how would you create an adaptive device to allow you to drive stick? And one of the things that I would tell your readers that we’re really trying to accomplish with this show is doing a little bit of MythBusters. We’ve never built a device like this for anyone before. It’s never been out there. So let’s try and do it. If you can add to the database of adaptive devices out there in the ether, that would be great.

What’s one piece of advice that you would give to your younger self or a kid growing up with a limb difference now?

Adapt. If there’s one word that I kind of have to operate by at all times, it’s adapting to your surroundings. The more willing and able you are to adapt to a situation or adapt to a sport, even if it doesn’t mean that you’re competitive or able on the same level as someone with legs or that’s fully able-bodied – I think that your ability to do that is really what’s going to get you out of the house, what’s going to make you lead a fuller life, and ultimately what’s going to make you part of a group and give you a sense of community.

*****

And adapt he does. This guy is going places (quite literally) with his spirited determination and sense of adventure. Check out all his contraptions and follow his journey on Armed & Ready, which airs on the Travel Channel this Tuesday, February 26th at 10/9c.

Have Twitter? Tweet with me during the first episode: http://bit.ly/YQ9jAf

Peace,

Caitlin Michelle

 

 

 

Social Share Toolbar

meet adam pearson

254744_10150274097787410_6788068_n
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of talking to Adam Pearson, a 28-year-old TV and film buff who works as a developer and presenter for the British network 4oD. I heard about Adam one night after watching an episode of Beauty and the Beast: The Ugly Face of Prejudice, which he starred in. Each episode of the show featured two people, one a woman obsessed with her physical appearance and the other a person living with a facial disfigurement, who spend some time in each other’s shoes. Adam has Neurofibromatosis, which causes benign tumors to form on his face. He’s had over 40 surgeries to relieve the pressure of the fibromas.

Watching the clips from the show, I was struck by the way Adam handled the stares and questions about his face. Of course, stares and questions about a physical difference are things that many in the limb difference community are used to, so I thought I’d reach out to Adam for advice and for his take on the situation.

295193_10151567307265322_900572666_n

Adam and his Yorkie Freddie (who looks just like my dog Augustus)

After work one day, I started Skype on my laptop and dialed Adam’s video-call number. Adam was a total sweetheart right from the beginning. He told me about his latest projects, which I promised to keep secret (though I will assure you that they sound awesome!) and about his current hobbies – video gaming and late-night TV marathons. (He’s the one who got me hooked on The Big Bang Theory.) Adam’s confident, self-assured, and happy – everything I’m working at becoming. He’s also very open and honest, as I learned from his sincere answers to my questions.

The first thing I asked Adam about was his career in television, since we had that in common. He said he was destined to work in TV from a young age, when he first developed a fascination with all things media. He realized early on that the media is a powerful vehicle through which he could educate and inform others about facial disfigurement. The mainstream depictions of people with physical differences (from the Phantom of the Opera to Captain Hook) don’t accurately portray the truth. Media consumers are probably very familiar with a limited number of tropes, usually involving an evil personality or embitterment about being different. Adam’s mission, he says, is to dispel the myths people hold about those with differences.

4sf7rt

Adam also featured Carla, a limb different model, in a billboard similar to his own

In a campaign he started while working on the show Beauty and the Beast: The Ugly Face of Prejudice, Adam directed a fashion show featuring models with various differences – from plus sizes to missing limbs. And in an even bolder move, he posed half-nude (ala David Beckham in his famous Armani ad) in a London billboard for the Changing Faces foundation, which helps those with facial disfigurements cope with their daily challenges. Recently, Adam went skydiving to raise money for the charity. Yep, the guy pretty much does it all.

When I asked Adam what his ultimate goal was with his work, he reiterated that he hopes physical differences get more accurate onscreen attention so that audiences understand that people with differences aren’t necessarily all that different. Those with a facial disfigurement like Adam’s or a limb difference like mine have hopes and dreams similar to those of the general public. We are not sideshow acts or curiosities; we are human beings, beautiful in our own right. And I can’t help but think of Adam as incredibly inspiring as he moves forward with this mission.

photo-1

Adam the skydiver

I know “inspiration” is a loaded word, one that I often take issue with. A lot of people use it to describe someone with a difference when that person succeeds or accomplishes something that you would only expect of someone without a difference. For example, I hate being called an “inspiration” when I wear sleeveless shirts or when I perform a task as mundane as sharpening a pencil. Adam has no problem being called an inspiration, he says, because he recognizes it as a compliment. So I hope he doesn’t mind that I find him inspiring (which I do believe is different than “inspirational”) and feel empowered to be myself and feel beautiful after speaking to him.

Today, Adam and I still keep in touch via Skype and Facebook. We’ve become friends, which is pretty inevitable when you meet someone so easy to talk to and so easy to love. He continues his campaign to put physical differences onscreen, and he’s making his mark on British television. He’s living his life to the fullest and never letting anything get him down.

So I’ll leave you with this, the advice Adam said he hopes anyone with a difference (or without one, of course) takes to heart:

“You need to live the life you have as opposed to grieving the one you don’t.”

 

Peace,

Caitlin Michelle

 

 

Social Share Toolbar

interview with ryan niemiller

Hey there! A lot has happened this week, the highlight being that my boyfriend Chris started a new job in New York. I’m super proud of him, and I know that he’ll do amazingly well there. He’s very interested in the work he’s doing, which is the key to any great career. This, of course, got me thinking about my own future career and jobs in general. While I’ve never experienced discrimination because of my disability (I work as a writing tutor and as an intern for NBCUniversal), I know that it’s a very real possibility for many people.  So to get a better perspective on the matter, I decided to interview Indiana-based comedian Ryan Niemiller. Here’s what he had to say (I color-coordinated it for you because I’m thoughtful like that):

Me: Has your disability ever been the reason why you didn’t get hired for a job you applied to?

RN: Certainly. It comes with the territory. People see me and since I have a fairly obvious disability, it’s much easier to assume I can’t do something without giving me a shot than it is to give me the opportunity and see what I can do. I used to get really mad about it, but it’s a natural human defense mechanism for some. But really, as frustrating as it is, do I really want to work for a place that assumes I’m incapable?

Me: I understand that you’re a professional comedian. Do you view your disability as an advantage or disadvantage in your stand-up career?

RN: I’d say it’s 80/20 advantage to disadvantage. My arms make me unique. I can guarantee there are no other comedians just like me in the world. I’m not just a late 20’s single white guy comic. I have something that helps me stand out, a hook if you will (pun intended). I have something I can immediately bring the audience in on. At the same time, there’s the fear of me being a comic who ONLY talks about his arms. Plus, a lot of times I have to over prove I am actually funny and not just a gimmick. There’s certain bookings I probably don’t get because people assume I’m a novelty act. Luckily, it doesn’t happen often.

Me: I know that you work as a barista at Starbucks. What’s the strangest reaction a customer has had to your arms?

RN: A little girl screamed in terror once, which was fantastic for my self esteem. But really, there’s not a lot of strange reactions. Most people just stare at most. I’ll get the occasional, “Wow, you’re such an inspiration!” line, which is irritating, but really, most people just want their damn lattes. 🙂

Me: Would you say that your co-workers treat you differently because of your arms?

RN: Not at all. Anyone who gets to know me and sees me operate doesn’t worry about my arms anymore. Once I am given the chance to prove myself, I take care of business and it’s a non-issue.


Me: So let’s say you were born with two “normal” arms. Would you still be in the profession you are now?

RN: I’d like to say yes, but honestly, I doubt it. I developed a sense of humor as a defense mechanism – I’d make all the jokes before anyone else had a chance to. If I was “normal,” I doubt that would have ever developed the way it did. I’d probably be an accountant or something equally lame. Ha ha.

Me: Let’s take that question a step further: how do you think your life would be different if you had “normal” hands?

RN: I’d probably be happier, as unpopular of an answer as I’m sure that is. Not that I’m necessarily miserable right now or anything, but my arms do lead to a lot of issues that I wouldn’t have to deal with otherwise. Getting jobs wouldn’t be as difficult, it would be easier to find someone to date, etc. But really, that’s just speculation. There’s no real way of knowing. Maybe I’d be even worse off.

Me: How do you respond when someone asks you about your hands?

RN: It depends on tone. If it’s a child, I try to be patient, because as irritating as it is, they don’t know any better. If it’s an adult who I don’t know well, usually with annoyance. Because I rarely get asked simple questions about it. I know some people are just curious so I try to be patient, but I’m almost 30 years old – I am a little tired from answering questions.

Me: What’s the best way to own your disability? By that, I mean: what do you do to feel confident when the world gets you down?

RN: I make money off it. I travel the country telling jokes about it, and then they hand me a check afterward. For me, it’s hard to get much better than that. And recently, I’ve just started cutting out a lot of the negative energy in my life. So if you’re not with me, you’re against me. That’s how I own it.

Me: Now I’m about to go all college-application-interview on you: Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

RN: Not a damn clue, and that’s half the fun. 🙂


   Thanks so much to Ryan for his time and honest answers. 


   If you’ve got comments or thoughts or ideas or anything else you feel like sharing, comment below! 


Peace,
Caitlin 🙂

Social Share Toolbar