I Define Me – John W. Quinn

By 1968, the world was full of innovations that would change the future. The audio cassette, compact disc and video had been invented. The first computer with integrated circuits had come upon the scene, along with RAM and even a very early version of the internet. Among medical inventions, the defibrillator was being used in ambulances around the country, silicone breast implants were making their way into the market, and the artificial heart was right around the corner.

What had not been invented, however, was a way to help six-year-old John W. Quinn keep up with his brothers and sisters. At the time he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, it was a prediction of physical and social hardship for life.

But somewhere along the way, John decided that his story would be the exception to that dismal rule. His determination, and the accomplishments that resulted from it, are a source of inspiration for everyone who has been told that their dream is impossible.

Focusing on Ability, Not Disability

John was born in Garden City, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. As the son of a police officer and one of eight siblings, he would have learned from example and experience the vital importance of being able to take care of himself. But it was clear to John’s parents that the ability to take care of himself would come a lot harder to John than to their other children…if it ever came at all.

By the time he reached age four, John had only just gained the ability to walk. Shortly after this, their family doctor offered his first official diagnosis: John had cerebral palsy.

Every case of cerebral palsy is different; for John, it meant partial paralysis and two differently sized feet. News like this is hard for any parent to handle, but John’s father and mother determined never to let the diagnosis affect their support of John, their expectations of him or their belief in what he could accomplish. Despite his weak and skinny limbs, and the constant taunting from his classmates, John was constantly encouraged by his father to focus on his abilities and never make his disability an excuse for not doing his best.

Perhaps because of his parents’ example, John grew up with undaunted determination to achieve whatever he set his mind to. It just so happened that, most often, what he set his mind to involved pushing his body to the limit of its natural ability. In high school, John joined the wrestling team. He never won a match but something about participating in the sport forged an uncommon strength in him. Over time, that strength would manifest not only in his muscles but also in his character and will.

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“The Opportunity to Show What I Could Do”

A new determination was born when John’s oldest brother came home to Michigan, fresh out of Navy boot camp. Perhaps it was a younger brother’s adulation of the elder or an awakened passion to serve his country. It might have been simply the allure of a new impossible goal to achieve. Whatever the cause, John made up his mind to follow his brother into the service.

As soon as John was finished with high school, he headed to the Navy recruitment office to enlist. First though, he had to get through his initial recruitment interview. But John came prepared for that, as well…

When the recruiting officer asked if he had any health conditions that needed to be disclosed, John answered “No.”

On one hand, this lie was technically illegal. In his memoir Someone Like Me, John writes wistfully of that initial encounter, regretting the necessity but not the action:

I would have loved to have told the truth to the recruiter from the very beginning. If I had done that, I believed the door would have been slammed in my face. So I kept my condition secret in order to give myself the opportunity to show what I could do.

It’s very hard to blame John for hiding the truth about his cerebral palsy. John knew full well the physical challenges that awaited him if he was accepted into the Navy, and was ready to meet them. All he needed was the chance.

Memories of Failure

What came next in the process of joining the Navy was the Physical Readiness Test (PRT), a fast and furious series of difficult physical tasks.

John failed it.

It wasn’t the pushups or the running that got in his way. It was the simplest of maneuvers: the duck walk. Because of his misshapen feet, John was unable to perform arguably the easiest task in the PRT to the satisfaction of the supervising officers. He was sent away with the words of the recruiting officer—“How can you fail the exam? Everyone passes this thing. It’s easy!”—ringing in his ears.

But rather than giving into defeat, John went home, and in his parent’s basement, began practicing the duck walk, over and over, for the duration of a year.

It was, he now admits, the hardest year of his life.

I was down there in that musty cellar with nothing to keep me company but the memory of being told the Navy couldn’t use someone like me.

Fortunately, John’s character was made of stuff too strong to let those words break his resolve. He used that memory to fuel his determination to prove the doubters wrong.

A year later, John returned to the recruitment office and passed the physical with outstanding marks.

“The Mighty Quinn”

The following years became the most rewarding and the most challenging of John’s life. On one hand, he was fulfilling his dream and exceeding his own limitations on a daily basis. On the other hand, he had to constantly stay on his guard to keep his cerebral palsy from affecting his abilities and being revealed to others. Because he had lied about his physical condition in order to get into the Navy, John had to continue to keep his cerebral palsy (and the extreme pain it brought him) secret from everyone who knew him.

I had to keep my guard up at all times and build an emotional wall around myself to keep my CP hidden,” he writes in Someone Like Me. “It was a heavy burden that almost killed me.”

Because his fellow officers didn’t know about his condition, they weren’t aware that the regular “hazing” practices of slapping, punching and wrestling were like torture to John. There was in particular a “bully from Kansas,” as John writes in Someone Like Me, who seemed to make it his personal mission to take the hazing up a notch whenever John was the unlucky plebe to get cornered. When Quinn complained of the repeated bullying to his commanding officer, his complaint was dismissed—it was harmless horseplay, his C.O. said, hardly anything worth an officer’s intervention.

With no one left to turn to, and no willingness to reveal the truth of how badly the hazing could hurt him if it continued, John did the only thing he could do. The next time the bully from Kansas cornered John for some “harmless horseplay,” he found himself confronting the business end of a dogging wrench that was gripped in John’s hand.

That was the last time anybody hassled John W. Quinn. If his parents had ever worried about cerebral palsy affecting his ability to take care of himself, the need for such worries were officially over.

Throughout all of this, John’s family and friends back home offered the support he needed to keep pushing him pushing on. In Someone Like Me, John particularly credits his father and his best friend for constantly spurring him onward. These two men had encouraged him to return to the recruiting office a year after his initial failure, and their belief in him fueled John’s belief in himself.

What’s more, over the twenty year career in the Navy, John’s grit and accomplishment persuaded everyone who served alongside him to believe in him, as well. By the time he retired from the Navy, he was known to everyone who served alongside him as “the Mighty Quinn.”

“Find Your Own Way”

Since John’s memoir was published in 2010, his career as an author and spokesperson has gained nearly as much acclaim as his highly decorated service in the Navy. He travels the country sharing his story with audiences across the spectrum, from middle school students to leaders of Fortune 500 companies. He just recorded the audio edition of Someone Like Me and is discussing a movie treatment of the story Mitch Albom (author of Tuesdays with Morrie) called “an inspirational tale.” When not touring on behalf of his story, he serves his new hometown of Tucson, Arizona as a fitness instructor, challenges himself with swimming, resistance training and Bikram yoga, and takes every chance that comes his way to encourage and inspire other members of the cerebral palsy community.

The key to overcoming disability, says John, is opportunity: “It opens the door…so that a person can put their ability on display—not their disability.”

Furthermore, as John’s story shows, if others refuse to offer that opportunity, there is no reason why anybody, no matter what their limitations might be, shouldn’t create that opportunity for themselves.

“Just because you do something different does not make it wrong. Focus on ability, not disability. Find your own way to succeed.”

Every month our firm spotlights an inspirational story from someone who has made a positive impact within the cerebral palsy community. If you or someone you know have a story to share, we’d love to hear from you! Email us at: contact@oshmanlaw.com

Ted Oshman

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Ted Oshman has been with Oshman & Mirisola since 1988 serving clients for over 25 years. Learn more about Ted's background and featured practice areas here.

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