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July 2024
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V for Victorious

How Toastmasters, not my wheelchair, helped define me.

By Marc Richards, DTM

After becoming paralyzed 18 years ago, Marc Richards focused on his abilities rather than his disabilities. He participated in 5K races, learned chi gong—and earned a Distinguished Toastmaster award.

In May 1998, I was paralyzed due to a rare medical accident. I thought my life was over. How would I continue to work, take care of my children, be a husband to my wife and live the life I was used to living?  I spent the next six months in rehab learning how to use my new body. 

My legs don’t work as advertised—but that is only a small portion of the challenges I face every day. Shortly after completing rehab, my wife and I went to a restaurant. The waitress came over, looked at my wife and asked, “What will he have?” while pointing at me. I felt ­invisible. This was not how I wanted to define my new “normal.”

I didn’t want to let my wheelchair ­define me, so I became an athlete to demonstrate my abilities and not dwell on my disabilities. Besides, walking is overrated. Rolling in style suits me just fine. 

I participated in 5Ks, learned chi gong, lifted weights at the gym, began swimming and got special leg braces so I could walk. (Being vertical is not only good exercise, it keeps my bones strong.)

Routinely, I would roll a 5K but stop 100 feet before the finish line. An assistant would then attach my leg braces and help me stand up so I could walk across the finish line—victorious. After crossing, I would hold my forearm crutches overhead in a “Victory V” to show the world that I was also visible

I didn’t want to let my wheelchair define me, so I became an athlete to demonstrate my abilities.

When people look at me, I often ­wonder if they see me or a wheelchair user, and then conjure up their definition of who I am. For example, I stopped on my way through a neighborhood ­unfamiliar to me and reached down to get the water bottle from the pack below my seat. As I sat up, a woman on her porch asked if everything was okay. I replied that I was fine. Then the man next to her asked if I needed help crossing the street. Kind words on the one hand, but on the other hand, they made an assumption about my capabilities because I was using a wheelchair. 

The only reason I own a wheelchair is due to that walking thing. Like many ­people, those people don’t know who I am. They naturally made an assumption based on what I presented to them. 

How could I get people to see me while I was riding a modern chariot? My answer came by way of a memory. When I was growing up, in the hallway of our house my dad displayed a plaque with crossed gavels on it, bearing the strange name Toastmasters. I thought being a master of toast was hilarious but thought nothing more of it until years later.

 As a result of the challenges I face ­every day, I retired from my job of 11 years. I had a lot of time on my hands. I volunteered at a hospital for a while, bringing my service dog, Logan, to visit patients. One day my childhood memory about the plaque resurfaced, only this time I did an internet search for Toastmasters and, after all these years, I finally learned what it was actually about.

Intrigued, I found a club close to home. After attending a few meetings, I realized this was a way for people to learn about who I am, and for me to find my voice. In my first year I became a club officer and entered a Humorous Speech Contest. In my third year I became an area governor, overseeing many clubs, as well as serving as club president. Thirsting for opportunities to speak and lead, I joined a second club in my fourth year and became president of that club. Shortly after my fifth anniversary in Toastmasters I received the Distinguished Toastmaster award, achieved by only about 1 percent of the 345,000 Toastmasters members worldwide. Now when I speak, the chair disappears and people see me.  

I genuinely hope my attitude and actions can inspire people to recover from adversity and achieve great things in the process!


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