Double Take: Kevin Connolly examines world view of people with disabilites
January 22, 2013
BY DAVE REESE
Kevin Connolly sauntered into the restaurant much like any other 20-something guy sporting a week’s growth of beard.
He had a confident air about him and a devil-may-care attitude. But you see Connolly, 24, doesn’t just saunter like any dude. He swings from Point A to Point B, the most direct route possible, using only his hands.
We were meeting at a downtown Helena restaurant for lunch, and by all appearances Connolly is just a normal guy. But normal he is not. The Helena native was born without legs.
Connolly uses a modified skateboard to get around, but often he just walks using his hands, his torso swinging just a few inches off the ground between his arms.
Connolly doesn’t like being identified with something called a “disability,” although he doesn’t mind talking about the difficulties he faces that able-bodied people do not. He wants to be known for his wit, writing ability or athletic skill. He doesn’t need to be labeled with the word “disabled.”
Connolly graduated from Montana State University in 2008, won a ski race in the ESPN X Games that left him flush with cash, and not long after signed a book deal with Harper Collins. After winning a silver medal in mono-skiing in the 2007 X Games, Connolly took his prize money and traveled around Europe and New Zealand, preparing to write his book, “Double Take.” The book examines Connolly’s life and the way people see him.
Yet he says he is often uncomfortable with the role of being inspirational, though it’s a given after meeting him you’d feel inspired. How could you not? This man has to face obstacles that we do not. Perhaps it’s not a disability at all, and instead he’s blessed with a unique way of looking at life. What is remarkable about Connolly — whether he had legs or not — is his persistent smile, his booming laugh, his intellect and his command of the English language. Those are things to inspired about, but if you wish to be inspired by a man who goes through life without legs, then so be it. Connolly, however, would prefer that his story be one about his writing and his photography.
He made his professional debut in writing when he landed a book deal with Harper Studio, an imprint of Harper Collins. Connolly had set out to publish a photography book about his Rolling Exhibition, a compilation of his photographs of life from his perspective. Then the book grew to involve the story of his life.
“The idea behind the photos was much more important than the photos themselves,” he said.
For someone who never studied writing, let alone ever attempted it professionally, Connolly is adept at the craft. It seems to come to him naturally. “Double Take” examines his life in a way that’s humorous, poignant, sad and insightful. And the insights are not just into his life, but into human nature itself.
Since graduating from Montana State University, he lived for a year in New Zealand and also visited South Africa, Croatia, China, England, Mexico and Canada. At each place he’s visited he’s witnessed a varying degree of reactions to his situation.
And that is perhaps the most important underlying premise of his book: how people judge others.
“People are so hardwired into creating an idea of others,” he said. “It’s important to be cognizant of the stories you dream up about others. You can’t level moral judgments.”
Often times the way people see him — or the way he sees them looking at him — has to do with their environment. For instance, in the former Czech Republic, people assumed he was a victim of the war in Sarajevo. An old man approached him and apologized for the war’s violence.
And in the United States, people assume he was injured in the country’s current war. They ask him “Do you still wear your dog tags from Iraq?”
Those cultural differences reflect our outlook on the world. “No one in America would assume I was a victim of the Balkan war,” he said. “These are all good reminders that we never really have the full picture, and that our assumptions about things are usually wrong.”
Still, he said, “people are always going to stare.”
One assumption you might have is that a kid without legs, born and raised in Helena, Mont., wouldn’t know how to ski. Yet that’s what has, in part, afforded him the time to write a book about his life. “It all started with winning a race,” he said.
During his childhood his parents would take him to Bridger Bowl in Bozeman, where he learned how to ski using adaptive ski equipment with the Eagle Mount program. From there he went to the X Games.
Connolly knows how to adapt. When Harper Collins bought his book idea, they asked him if he’d like a ghost writer. He said no. “Success or failure, I wanted this to be on my own,” he said. After leaving New Zealand, Connolly went to work writing his book. He set himself up in an office overlooking Manhattan at the publisher’s New York headquarters. The story line in the book came easily — but writing it awakened old memories of his childhood — some of them haunting. His mother was always filming the family, so he had plenty of home movies to jog his memory. “Emotionally it was hard for me,” he said.
The first part of his book examines his childhood. The rest of the book delves into the anatomy of our assumptions about others.
Connolly has taken his knowledge and spread it around at places like the Smithsonian Institute; he’s had a gallery show of his photographs at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and has been on 20/20 and National Public Radio. But he still isn’t comfortable with the moniker of motivational speaker.
“To be in your early 20s and be writing a retrospective is hard,” he said. “You don’t have that much material to deal with. I’m still learning what adult life is like. Effectively I’m still a dumb kid, so I focus on the strengths I do have.”