Profile: Humor is the Key
Paraplegic Toastmaster thrives on making people laugh.
By Julie Bawden Davis
Meet Andy Ransom and he’ll introduce you to his wheelchair. The 29-year-old paraplegic likes to get the particulars out of the way so he can concentrate on what really matters – making people laugh.
“First, I educate people about my disability with my power wheelchair,” says Ransom, who is president of the Lakeshore Toastmasters club in Grand Haven, Michigan. “I explain that I have the use of my head and neck and that I control my wheelchair with my mouth. A ventilator breathes for me, and I have a speaking valve. Then I joke that I’m a stand-up, sit-down comedian, and I entertain them with one of my favorite activities – running over bubble wrap with my chair. It sounds like fireworks and really makes people laugh.”
While Ransom peppers his messages with jokes, his story is also one of courage and strength. On January 28, 1986 – the same day the space shuttle Challenger exploded – the then-six year old was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer in his inner ear that required massive doses of radiation and chemotherapy, eventually leading to paralysis from the neck down. After three years in the hospital, Ransom went home to live with his father until he was 22. Today he lives on his own with the help of around-the-clock caregivers. Rather than wallow in misfortune about his need for constant care, Ransom likes to talk about how fortunate he is.
“You can’t focus on the past; you can only focus on the future,” says Ransom, who also enjoys participating in go-kart races with his wheelchair. “Things may seem bad, but you can always make them better. All you have to do is take a walk down a hospital hallway and you can see how much worse things can be. You are your own limitations, so turn those limitations into positive experiences.”
Doug Ransom, Andy’s father, says he encouraged his son to use humor from a very young age. “Humor often entails jokes about bad things that have happened to you, and it helps you deal with difficult situations in a more healthy way,” he says. “Andy and I will often joke about the fact that when they did the surgery on his tumor initially, the doctors didn’t remove the entire tumor because they were afraid they might paralyze the whole right side of his body. We kid each other that we’re sure glad they didn’t do that – then he’d actually be able to use half of his body and might not be on a breathing machine.”
Though Andy always knew that he liked to make people laugh and even did some humorous routines for other ventilator users, it wasn’t until he joined Toastmasters in 2005 that his talent for comedy really came through.
“When I joined Toastmasters and began speaking and making people laugh, I found that it made me feel really good inside,” says Andy. “I’m glad to have found that my job in life is speaking.”
His father noticed a remarkable change in Andy since he joined Toastmasters.
“He was so proud to join the organization, and I’ve seen him improve dramatically in his communication skills,” says Doug. “Andy is more self-confident, and he seems to think better and get his point across. He knows what to say and speaks more clearly.”
Fellow club member Marianne Stuparits notes that Andy’s easy-going nature immediately draws other people to him.
“When I met Andy three years ago, I quickly learned to love him,” says Stuparits. “His sense of humor catches you right away, and he puts you at ease immediately. He’s upfront about his disability, and all of his speeches have humor in them. He will often share about his travels in his wheelchair and the trials and tribulations of getting from point A to point B. One of his best speeches is about his trip to Las Vegas and all of the hilarious things that happened to him there.”
Stuparits calls Andy “a very honest and caring president” whose speaking style includes great eye contact and movement. “He constantly moves his wheelchair, which keeps the audience alert.”
Andy enjoys his leadership position. “Being president has been a great experience for me,” he says. “It gave me a chance to see myself in a different role and to take on more responsibility. I’ve become more independent and go out in public more often than I used to. I also love the gavel, which a fellow member hits for me.”
Since joining Toastmasters, Andy has also discovered that he has a knack for teaching. He’s spoken to various college audiences and recently began teaching the Toastmasters Youth Leadership program to high school students.
“Teens are so active and constantly trying new things, and they’re so stimulating to be around,” says Andy, who himself was mainstreamed into the Michigan school system and graduated from Grand Haven High School in 1999.
“I enjoy teaching Youth Leadership and spreading the word about how important communication is,” he says. “Young people are, after all, our future, and it’s important that they learn communication skills...I let them know that with good speaking skills they can win arguments with their parents and siblings.”
Grand Haven junior Katy Wolffis says she learned a great deal from Andy’s YLP course.
“The class was a lot of fun,” says the 17-year-old. “I learned that you don’t need to be shy around people in wheelchairs. At first I was a little bit shocked to see Andy in his wheelchair, but then I got used to it, and we all began to laugh a lot.”
Wolffis also learned leadership and speaking skills. “The Toastmasters curriculum is really good,” she says. “We learned about taking responsibility and teamwork. Practicing parliamentary procedure helped us all work as a group and get more organized in our ideas.
“I also learned to not be nervous standing in front of a group of people and talking about something I believe in. I can now convey my own thoughts and opinions, and I have more confidence. I think the class really prepared me for college and a career.”
Andy plans to continue teaching Youth Leadership courses, and he soon will also be presenting to elementary age children. “By teaching young people I’ve learned so much from them, and I know they’ve learned a lot, because they’ve told me so,” he says. And he believes they’ll want to try full Toastmasters membership someday. “I always let kids know that as soon as they turn 18, they can join [a Toastmasters club], and I expect to see them.”
Julie Bawden Davis is a freelance writer living in Southern California. Reach her at Julie@Juliebawdendavis.com
Editor’s Note: Do you have an inspiring story of how the Toastmasters program has helped you? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org.