Kevin Michael Connolly is a world-traveler, a scholar, a photographer an author and a world-class athlete. He was also born without legs. We spoke with Kevin about the ways his parents inspired him, how athletics helped his confidence and why he doesn’t consider himself an inspiration.
Double Take turns the tables on people who are looking at you. As a child, how did you come to terms with the staring? Was it a process? How did your parents help you handle it?
I would say that I was reasonably fortunate that I grew up in small town, and after my first few years around the community, the staring subsided as the novelty died off. Even as a small child, I enjoyed being the center of attention – and with how normally my parents treated me growing up, I never really came to understand that being stared at could be a “bad thing.” It wasn’t even until I was out of the country and on my own that I began to realize the level of frustration that it could sometimes cause.
In the third chapter of the book, my Mom introduces a very simple game to me called “What If”, in which she posed a series of hypothetical scenarios, and it was my job to try and figure out what to do in any given situation. I think it was this early exercise that helped with my problem solving skills, as well as my ability to deal with the stares later on in life.
You were a silver medalist in the 2007 Winter X-Games. How did your athleticism growing up contribute to your self-esteem?
I also received a bronze in this year’s X Games! I think that just like anyone growing up, athleticism allowed me to find something that I was good at outside of school and team sports. I think that everyone – especially at a young age – needs to have at least one thing they feel they are good at. It’s what helps you define yourself at a young age – and I think it was that early sense of personal definition that helped give me a confidence in my teenage years.
You mention (in other interviews) your frustration with being pegged as “an inspiration” or “heroic” because of your physical challenges. How does this perception from others hinder you? How have you learned to separate how others see you from how you see yourself?
Yeah, I’ve really made an effort to make that separation, and I think that through the writing and publishing of Double Take, I have largely come to terms with that distinction. I think they main issue that I take with the “heroic” and “inspirational” labels is that it sometimes comes across as another, slightly more positive way, of calling someone disabled. Having been born without legs, I’ve never known any sense of contrast or ‘loss’, and as a result it feels like a bit of a misnomer to labeled as an inspiration for simply existing. One thing I talk about in the book is this idea that the dualism of “disabled” and “abled” doesn’t really exist. Instead, I believe that it is more of a fluid, moment-to-moment spectrum that is largely dependent on our ability to carry out an action at any given time.
For instance – when I’m carrying my board and camera up a big flight of stairs in Ukraine, I could be considered disabled because I’m less able than those around me to complete the given activity. However, when I’m passing those same people a minute later on my skateboard – thus performing more efficiently than they – is it really fair to leave on such a label. I think that any static labels – whether its ‘disabled’, ‘inspirational’, or ‘heroic’ – are really for me. I prefer the more practical – ‘no legs.’ Simple, practical, and no false expectations!
People have a tendency, too, to infantalize both children and adults who have a visible or apparent disability. How can parents help their children to confront this and challenge it?
My Dad would probably say “make sure to give ’em a kick in the ass” and I don’t know if I would disagree. I think that the best thing my parents did from a very young age was challenge me both physically and intellectually. Between my Dad’s hiking trips and wrestling matches, and my Mom’s games of causality – I was forced to grapple with, and compensate for many of my physical shortcomings from a young age. My parents were always present in my life, but very adamant that I figure things out for myself. Whether it was hopping onto a countertop or hiking my way through a forest – my folks always thought it would be best if I figured it out. I think that sort of a self-sufficiency is probably the most important thing to drill into someone at a young age. That, and being proud of your independence – so that when someone questions it, you can give them a kick in the ass.
You can see more of Kevin’s work at his flickr page. You can also read his blog and follow him on twitter. We’ll leave you with one of the videos from his YouTube channel showing you what it’s like to get through a crowded city on his skateboard.
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