Profile: Pushing Past His Disability

Profile: Pushing Past His Disability

Confined to a wheelchair since childhood,
this Toastmaster motivates others to excel.

 By Julie Bawden Davis

Caption: John Russ in a promotional poster for his DJ business.

At age eight, while other boys watched cartoons for fun, John Russ viewed speeches given at presidential conventions and other political events. As he studied each speaker’s mannerisms and message, Russ dreamed about being a motivational speaker one day. This is unusual behavior for any young boy, but especially for Russ, who was born with cerebral palsy.

Diagnosed during infancy with a moderate case of this neurological disorder that permanently affects body movement and muscle coordination, Russ lives life in a wheelchair. But he has never thought of himself as limited.

“For me, having cerebral palsy has been a motivator,” says Russ, a member of the Lamplighters club in Wilmington, North Carolina. “I’ve always been goal-oriented. When I was young, I told my mom that I wanted to live on my own one day and get married like everyone else. I moved out when I was 19, started my own DJ business and married my high school sweetheart eight years ago,” says Russ, now 31.

Fellow Lamplighters member Bill Carleton has been especially impressed with Russ. “In one of his first speeches, he told us that the best way to treat a person with his condition is to expect intelligence, responsibility and productivity and save our sympathy and special treatment for others, and I thought, ‘Wow!’” says Carleton. “John is an inspiration to everyone in the club. He sets tough goals and then achieves them. He earned his CC in 10 months. When he entered the humorous contest after his 6th speech, he had us all rolling in the aisles.” 

                    "Anything is possible if you believe and work hard."

Russ has performed since elementary school when he started a rap group, entered a competition and won. In middle school he ran for vice president of the student body and nearly won, and in high school he won the position of class president twice. The latter experience gave him his first real taste of public speaking.

“When I ran for student body president, I knew my speech had to be terrific and that it would be hard,” says Russ, who has been a Toastmaster since November 2005. For Russ, reading and writing has always been difficult, so when he wrote that first speech, a fellow student drew symbols to represent the various concepts. The system worked and he still uses it today.

Russ’ speaking skills were noticed at a young age. When he was 14, the Special Olympics asked him to be a part of its Athletes for Outreach program, which is now called Global Messengers. For three years he spoke at numerous fundraisers and civic events about the Special Olympics program. Kathy Kittleson, who is currently recreation supervisor for the city of Wilmington, was coordinator of the Athletes for Oureach program when Russ was involved.

“John was a dynamic speaker even then,” says Kittleson, who has known Russ since he was a young child. “He could take any event and make it seem like ice cream. He has always championed and advocated for the rights of people with disabilities. He spoke eloquently and passionately about the Special Olympics and how it improved his life and gave him many opportunities. He always made the audience feel like it’s the ability and not the disability that counts.”

Even after he finished with the Special Olympics program, Russ was asked to speak to various groups, including youth groups and teachers working with disabled children. It was during this time that he heard about Toastmasters and how the group could help fine-tune his speaking skills.

After looking into Toastmasters, Russ could see that the organization was the answer to making his dream of being a motivational speaker a reality, but he didn’t immediately seek out a club.

“I was nervous about what being a member would entail in terms of reading and writing, and I was worried about how they would accept me socially,” admits Russ. “I’m a very independent person, and I didn’t want to get into a situation where I would need a lot of help.”

Finally, in November 2005, Russ worked up the courage to visit Toastmasters and was pleasantly surprised.

“They never had a member with a disability, and I don’t think they initially knew what to think of me,” says Russ, whose voice is deep, rich and slightly hesitant at times. “The club is composed of a great group of people from all walks of life, and they’ve been very supportive. They have definitely enhanced my self-esteem, which has really helped my speaking skills.”

The first time Lamplighter’s member Richard Weisman saw Russ speak, he was impressed. “I’d never seen someone speak from a wheelchair, and I thought that it was incredibly brave of him,” says Weisman, who is the club treasurer. “He’s very good at engaging people and working the audience, and he has a great sense of humor. I really enjoy his speeches and find them inspiring.”

As members of the Wilmington club see it, Russ is well on his way to meeting his goal of becoming a motivational speaker. “John is confident, personable and outgoing, and he lets nothing stop him,” says Carleton. “He was a good speaker when he joined us and he continues to improve.”

In addition to speaking, Russ runs DJ Smooth Entertainment (, which offers mobile disc jockey services for parties, weddings, conventions and other events. Russ started the business in November 2002 with the goal of combining music and speaking to convey his message.

“I’ve always loved music, and I think it’s very therapeutic for listeners,” says Russ, who plays all types of music for his audiences, but personally favors R&B, hip-hop and gospel.

Russ has found that Toastmasters has given him more confidence to talk about his disability and motivate audiences to set goals and fulfill their dreams.

“Thanks to Toastmasters, my message is more polished and effective,” says Russ. “I tell audiences that I’ve overcome a lot in my life, and they can too. I urge people to set goals and be determined, because anything is possible if you believe and work hard.”

Julie Bawden Davis is a freelance writer and longtime contributor to this magazine. She lives in Southern California. Reach her at

Editor’s Note: Do you have an inspiring story of how the Toastmasters program has helped you? Tell us at