Motivational Speaker Shares Struggles and Successes with Disability

Photo by Hope Patti

Motivational speaker Paul Wichanksy gave two keynote speeches in the Alumni Lounges last Thursday as part of Disability Awareness Month. During his keynotes, he shared his day-to-day experiences as someone who was born with cerebral palsy.

“[A] smile is very important.  It shows to yourself and your family and friends that you think good things, you have a positive attitude, and you need that attitude in order to reach all of your dreams and goals,” said Wichansky.

Wichansky shared his dreams, which included, but was not limited to, being able to walk, draw or paint, get his license, be on television to report the weather, meet Billy Joel and fly a plane.

“Just being able to get off this chair, and stand in front of you is a fantastic dream,” said Wichansky.

For seven years of his life, Wichansky used a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, a condition that left him with weak leg muscles and turned in feet. Wichansky had to wear braces on his legs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to straighten his legs. His orthopedist said that if wore the braces every day there was a chance that he’d be able to learn to walk.

“I learned more about cerebral palsy and got a better understanding of it. I met a few people with it, so I had a general idea of what it was like, but I never understood what it was like to grow up with it. He helped me see that more,” said junior Jessica Costa.

Wichansky asked the audience if anyone liked to draw, paint or doodle. He went on to ask if anyone thought that they could perform these tasks better than he could. He used this question to exemplify the idea that many individuals have about what people with disabilities can and cannot do.

“I want to shatter that image and focus on what they can do. Our capabilities overshadow our disabilities all the time, and sometimes it’s our challenges that are the greatest gifts we have in life,” said Wichansky.

While many of Wichansky’s experiences were positive, others were not.  He told the audience that in ninth grade while having lunch, a senior jock put him in a cafeteria garbage can and wheeled him around. At the time Wichansky did not know that the jock spent the next 24 years feeling bad about his actions. Through Facebook, the jock found him and apologized.

“People can change when they become educated about the differences we all share, and those differences should be celebrated, not ridiculed… The main part of this story is that forgiveness is always a sign of strength, never a sign of weakness," said Wichansky. "So when you forgive somebody you’re taking a load of negativity off your chest… it takes courage to forgive someone, but I’m sure you have it in your heart to do that.”

For students like Costa, Wichansky’s message encouraged them to transcend their disability in order to live a fuller life.

“I have Asperger’s, and he just reiterated something I grew up with: not to grow up with the disability, but the capabilities I have with Asperger’s,” said Costa.

Wichansky also talked about self-confidence, encouraging students to never let someone’s perception of you become the reality. He explained that positivity is essential, and that your challenges are not supposed to knock you down; but instead, help you conquer, love and live.

“Find courage, change things for the positive,” said Wichansky. “If you feel it’s the right thing in your heart to do, I encourage you to do that.”