Although most convocation speakers who visit Adrian College come with an inspiring message to deliver, Kevin Michael Connolly represents one of the few exceptions. The man who has been hit “twice and a half” by cars delivered a compelling speech last Wednesday at noon in Dawson Auditorium as part of the James Borland Convocation Series and Disabilities Awareness Week.
“I liked how he used humor and how he thought he was not an inspiration,” said sophomore Annie Gigowski.
Despite having a sporadic birth defect, which caused him to be born without legs, Connolly continuously asserted he was not an inspiration. Instead, he explained, he’s just a normal guy who takes pictures and has a book.
Connolly’s book, Double Take: A Memoir was published in 2009 as a follow-up to a photography project he started as an undergraduate at Montana State University. Labeled “The Rolling Exhibition,” Connolly’s idea for the project arose while he was traveling in Europe in 2006.
“This project is more about stare and not share,” he said. “It’s more of a portrait of you and who you are than it is about the guy without legs.”
In Ukraine, he was handed money and blessed by people he encountered. One man even picked up Connolly in an attempt to safely transport him. One day while he was riding his skateboard in the city he noticed a man on the street staring at him so he decided to take a picture.
“We stare at people outside of our idiosyncratic realm of normal,” Connolly said. “We only do that with the thought of not getting caught.”
He continued snapping photos during the remainder of his trip, eventually coming out with nearly 1,200 pictures by the time he was done.
“For the first time in my life, I was able to turn stares and make them into a two-way street,” Connolly said.
Connolly was contacted by representatives from the Winter X Games in 2007 who asked him to participate in the inaugural mono-skier event. He received a silver medal and $7,000 in winnings which he spent on an “around-the-world” ticket and to develop adaptive devices such as special gloves and a camera strap to pull of his photo project.
In a few short months, Connolly traveled to 17 countries with nothing but his skateboard and camera equipment and recorded nearly 33,000 pictures with the same lens and same angle. He would skateboard between nine and 20 miles each day and snap quick photos of people on the opposite side where he was placing his focus.
“Every photo is shot while I’m on the move,” Connolly said. “One thing I found when I was shooting was the stories people told about you were specific to their locale.”
For example, when Connolly was in New Zealand he was asked if he was attacked by a shark. Back in the U.S., however, people assumed he had lost his legs while serving in combat.
Publishers caught wind of Connolly’s project and felt he had gathered enough thoughts to produce a book. It also includes background information on his life in Montana.
Connolly was born Aug. 18, 1985 with rare disease known as bilateral lower Amelia, a sporadic birth defect, which left him without legs. He was recommended by doctors at Shriners Hospital in Spokane, Washington to obtain metallic legs, but refused and instead began using a “butt boot” for comfort and travel. Connolly grew up in Montana participating in childhood activities such as riding sleds and shooting guns. At time people didn’t give him odd looks because of his condition.
“The novelty of seeing a legless dude dies pretty quickly,” Connolly said.
It wasn’t until he embarked on his study abroad trip to New Zealand that he began to perceive others’ reactions toward him and his body.
“I started to see how different I really was,” Connolly said. “One of the things I realized really quickly was that I got picked up really quickly.”
To date, Connolly has been to 26 foreign countries and has also arranged a deal with the Travel Channel for a television series with scheduled dates of release in the near future.
The speech opened with comments from senior Tiffany Taylor, president of Promoting the Rights of Individuals with Disabilities Everywhere (P.R.I.D.E.) and disabilities specialist Danielle Ward. Connolly ended his speech with a challenge for the audience to consider the questions we ask about less-able persons rather than considering the individual.
“It’s a person with differences and abilities, not a person with disabilities,” Gigowski said.
A number of students, faculty, and staff joined Connolly with lunch following his presentation.