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Cal Schultz Memorial Event and National Disability Employment Awareness Month Celebration keynote speaker John Robinson gives a presentation titled "Get Off Your Knees" Tuesday evening at the County Fair Banquet Hall in Mitchell. Robinson is a congenital amputee and told about how he overcame struggles associated with his disability. (Chris Huber/Republic)

Man born without complete arms, legs talks about disability

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Man born without complete arms, legs talks about disability
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

John Robinson has a message for people who face a challenge in life: You can overcome it. He did.

"Oftentimes, opportunities are disguised as challenges," Robinson said. Born a multiple-congenital amputee, Robinson, who is 3 feet, 9 inches tall, has no hands. He was born without the full development of his arms and legs. His arms stop at his elbows and his legs are without knees. He still has nerve endings in his limbs and said he has full feeling and the ability to do most things that other people do, from making a fist and gripping a drink to offering a derisive digit in traffic. "I am comfortable and confident and happy with the body I have," Robinson said.


Robinson, 43, moves with a rocking/shuffling motion -- but he still walks. And plays golf. And drives a car.

He was the featured speaker at the Cal Schultz Memorial Event, held Tuesday night in conjunction with the 2012 National Disability Employment Awareness Month celebration at the County Fair Banquet Hall in Mitchell. The ninth annual event was presented by the Mitchell Advisory Council For People With Disabilities.

Speaking to one of the largest crowds in the history of the event, which appeared to be about 100 people, he delighted them with funny anecdotes, quick quips and inspiring stories. Robinson told them of the time his college roommate took him sledding on a crowded hill after a deep snow had fallen on the Syracuse campus.

"I said, 'Rob, all those people are staring at me,' " Robinson said. "He said, 'Get over it. People stare at you wherever you go.' "

That was a jolt, he said, but he kept going up that hill.

It didn't go exactly as planned, and Robinson ended up careening down the ski hill and landing in a pile of snow. His buddy was eager to do it all over again. He said his life is different than other people's, but he has accepted it.

Robinson said he has faced challenges in his career as a speaker and as the operator of an inspirational website, and in his daily life. Little kids often stare or even tackle him, and one time a young kid crossed a street just to ridicule him. Robinson chose to deflect it with humor, warning the kid that his disability happened because he didn't eat his vegetables.

"We have our own ability in our own way," Robinson said.

He admitted he longed to have a "normal" life as a younger man but now strives to be a good husband, father and business owner.

"Normal is a journey we are all on, a vision in our own heads," Robinson said. "This is what we're chasing. We just need to recognize the signs of it. We want to be accepted. In this life, in this journey, we're all looking for acceptance."

Once people accept their lives, they can move ahead, make a plan and achieve, he said. Robinson said he did that, and others can, too.

After being inspired by President Obama's 2011 State of the Union speech and its promise to help entrepreneurs through Startup America, he sent an email to the program and then grew disappointed when no one replied. He wrote a blog post about it.

"Employment for people with disabilities is a constant struggle, as is advancement within one's career. It can be a challenge to get able-bodied people to look at people with disabilities as an 'employable commodity,' " Robinson wrote. "To combat this, people with disabilities are on the forefront of entrepreneurship. We build businesses to be able to employ ourselves and help the world around us."

The blog quickly gained national attention on The Huffington Post website and, soon, he was at a White House event where he was seated in the front row as President Obama spoke. Robinson said he is determined to see his business grow and thrive.

"You never know what's going to happen," he said.

Robinson covered the 2012 Paralympics in London this year on his website and noted that the event drew more interest, media attention and fan involvement in other countries than it did here.

"In the long run, I see businesses in the United States working toward an inclusive society. Cargill, Barclays Capital and Walgreens stand out as leaders. We need more," he wrote in his blog. "We need political leaders to lead in this area as well. If we want more inclusion in our society, isn't showing the Games one way to begin our inclusive journey?"

His life story, "Get Off Your Knees" is both a PBS documentary as well as a published autobiography. It's a phrase that came to him when a girl at a college party thought he was holding up a line because he was on his knees, and urged him to get up and get moving.

Two friends of his laughed and thought it was a weirdly comic moment. But Robinson said to him, it was a moment of clarity. He needed to step up and create a life for himself, and he did.

"Did I get off my knees? Yes," Robinson said.

There are approximately 1.7 million people with limb loss in the United States -- excluding fingers and toes, according to Robinson. But there are relatively few people born with congenital limb loss. In 1996, it was recorded as 25.64 per 100,000 live births.

It amazed him to learn that statistic, he said, but he was also determined not to be defined by it. More than 50 million Americans, 18 percent of the population, have disabilities, but he said all have value and can achieve and enjoy life.

Robinson, an Albany, N.Y., native, has been married for 19 years and has three children, two sons and a daughter, whom he said are determined to drive their parents crazy. None of his children has his disability, nor does his sister.

In addition to being a public speaker, he operates Our Ability, a website that seeks to train and inspire people to achieve and succeed. He also spoke at the Cal Schultz event in 2010.

The event is named for Schultz, the late and longtime Corn Palace mural designer, who was afflicted with post-polio syndrome, which affected his mobility.

Schultz designed more than 300 Corn Palace murals from 1977 to 2001 and had a book written about him titled "The King of Corn."

He was named South Dakota's Outstanding Citizen with a Disability in 1993, and in 1991 he participated in the Smithsonian Institute's Folk Art Festival in Washington, D.C. In 1998, Schultz was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame.