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Episode 006: George Dennehy and his rise to stardom as a guitarist and singer

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On today’s show, from our inspiration showcase, some amazing guests: We’ll check in with Commissioner Jim Rothrock from the Virginia department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services on WWRC changing its name and a guest that I have been waiting to interview now for months: George Dennehy the internet sensation known on Twitter as “that armless guy”. George Dennehy, born without arms, now working as a musician and motivational speaker. We’ll hear his amazing story: how he learned to drive using nothing but his feet. And, his rise to stardom as a guitarist and singer against all odds, George Dennehy is living out his dreams.

July 5, 2015

Transcript of Episode six:

Welcome to the VR Workforce Studio. The disability employment podcast from the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center where we’re showcasing the successes of individuals with disabilities who are either in or preparing to be part of the workforce here in Virginia. Also, celebrate the champions of business and industry that hire individuals with disabilities as well as the vocational rehabilitation professionals who dedicated their lives and careers to creating hope and a path forward to employment so individuals with disabilities can lead more productive lives; enhance our Virginia workforce and move our new Virginia economy forward.

On today’s show, from our inspiration showcase, some amazing guests: We’ll check in with Commissioner Jim Rothrock from the Virginia department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services on WWRC changing its name and a guest that I have been waiting to interview now for months: George Dennehy the internet sensation known on Twitter as “that armless guy”. George Dennehy, born without arms, now working as a musician and motivational speaker. We’ll hear his amazing story: how he learned to drive using nothing but his feet. And, his rise to stardom as a guitarist and singer against all odds, George Dennehy is living out his dreams. Dennehy is living proof that individuals with disabilities can overcome insurmountable odds and soar to unimagined heights when they connect with their passion with the supports they need to enable their dreams. All that and more straight ahead in the VR Workforce Studio.

Its July 2015 and this is episode number 6 of the VR Workforce Studio we’re entering a new era of service at WWRC. After almost seven decades of being known as the Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center; changing our name to the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center. The center was established back in 1947 when the state of Virginia purchased the property previously known as the Woodrow Wilson Army General Hospital for just a dollar. A group of volunteers staffed then country’s first state owned comprehensive vocational rehabilitation center. Over the past seven decades WWRC has constantly adapted to the changing needs of Virginians with disabilities, to help them develop the independence and job skills needed to be self-sufficient. In 2015 the legislation was passed in the Virginia general assembly and signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe; making WWRC the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center. Jim Rothrock, the commissioner for the Virginia Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services has been a part of the Virginia VR program now for over four decades and has been involved with Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center, or now the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center in one way or another since the mid-sixties. Great honor to welcome your friend and mine, Jim Rothrock to the podcast. Welcome Commissioner… It’s a pleasure to be with you Rick, I am excited about how you are expanding our use of technology to use the post casts and I am really interested in participating myself and learning about how they have an impact… Jim, WWRC has been around since 1947, so almost seven decades, and now a new name. How do you see the name carrying the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center into the future?… I see it as an opportunity to reengage with the community, I don’t want to say it’s a gimmick by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it gives the opportunity again to introduce ourselves to the communities that we serve with an embrace of a workforce resource that over the last decades has really been taken on as a primary function of the center. When we started talking about this I think we saw the opportunity to take advantage of some of the exciting things that we’re doing in helping, manufacturing, and logistical support businesses around the state, find qualified employers and that’s truly a workforce development initiative not so much focusing on the disability or rehabilitation needs of the individual but on workforce potential. And underscoring that gives us an opportunity to again reintroduce ourselves to the community partners and be able to take advantage of a new initiative… Commissioner, you’ve been passionate about changing WWRCs name. Tell us what led you towards supporting WWRC becoming the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center. I was a student at Woodrow Wilson in the mid-sixties as a result of a sledding accident and remember the derisive comments that other fellow students made about themselves, and ourselves, including myself, about being rehabs and it was a term that I personally felt derisive. And I really didn’t think it was a representative moniker that really addressed the needs of our students in a very positive fashion. And that personal experience nagged at me for four or five decades, however long it’s been. And when we started talking about getting into the seventy years of being in service I thought it might be time to shift the emphasis from rehab and focus on the fact that our students are workers. That’s what really defines them, yet at the same time we did not want to trash our heritage of exceptional desk practice examples of solid rehabilitations. So the result was a combination of a new emphasis of workforce and a rekindling of the fine rehabilitation work that we do to hopefully make sure that our students are perceived in a very positive fashion… Jim, always a pleasure to have you here at the VR Workforce Studio best of luck to you and the entire agency in 2015 and beyond. Final thoughts?… I just think that if I had a youngster that was going to be a student at Woodrow Wilson or was that youngster being able to see that I was going up there to see the services that allow me to work many times rehabilitation services are critical to that, but at its essence the workforce piece, I would be a lot more excited about the possibilities and the ability for either myself or my family member to be defined as a worker and to take their place in our Commonwealth’s workforce that is meeting the needs of a new economy, as our Governor often refers to… Be sure to join us in August of 2015 for an entire interview with Jim Rothrock, his amazing story from teenager injured in a sledding accident to public official in the state VR program. An incredibly successful story of disability employment. Jim Rothrock in August of 2015 here in the VR workforce studios.

George Dennehy known on Twitter as “that armless guy” is profoundly successful as a motivational speaker, guitarist, singer, and recently he took on a new role as being a dad, all with no arms. Born in Romania, he was an orphan, adopted, and then moved to America. But as a child with no arms, he struggled. He was bullied, made fun of, until his positive mental attitude, his music, and vocational rehabilitation paved the way to driving, and success as a musician and a motivational speaker. George, welcome to the VR Workforce Studio… Thanks for having me on the show, Rick, it’s great to be here and how wonderful it is that WWRC has a pod cast that’s focused on employment for people with disabilities. I think that’s great… George, like thousands of others, I follow you on Twitter and other social media, bring us up to speed on your career… Yeah, I’m a full time musician and motivational speaker. Over the past couple of years I’ve been traveling and playing music, and giving talks, and messages as my Job. It’s been going really well; I’ve had a lot of cool opportunities. I’m just blessed to have this as my job to support myself and my family through doing what I love. It’s awesome… This pod cast is all about disability employment can you take us back to your early days and what it was like growing up with a disability?… Yeah, so going back to the beginning of my life, I was born without arms and I was born in Romania. When I was one and a half years old I was adopted into an American family and they helped me grow and raised me up in a home where they always told me that I could do whatever I wanted to do and my dreams are never too far out of reach. Growing up with that mindset really helped me overcome being somebody with a disability. It really helped me accept it, and not just accept it, but embrace it. So as I got older and older and eventually graduated high school I had the mindset of being the best that I could be. So right after high school I decided that I wanted to do music and I want to help people, and share my story, and my testimony of overcoming this obstacle and following my dreams. So that’s exactly what I did, I decided that I was going to go, full head on, after my dreams. That’s what led me to do what I do right now… George, when you and I first met, you were learning to drive. What some felt, I think, was unthinkable for a man with no arms. So we have a video in the gallery, at, of George driving his family’s van out to the DMV the day he got his driver’s license. If you haven’t seen it, go out to VR Workforce Studio look in the gallery and I assure you will be amazed. This video has inspired the masses. George, as a guy with no arms, what was it like learning to drive with your feet?… Learning how to drive was absolutely a trying time. It wasn’t a trying time in a way that it was physically hard to do. You know, driving was something in my mind I always knew that I’d be able to do. And I knew that I’d be able to do well and easily I just had that feeling. But the thing was convincing everyone else that I could do that. The hardest part was probably trying to convince the school system and everyone when I was a sophomore in high school and we started drivers-ed and I went in there and my teacher was like ‘Are you sure you’re okay with taking this class?’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, absolutely I’m okay. I’m ready for this.’ She kind of wasn’t sure about that. Then, even convincing my parents that this is something that I could do, took a lot of convincing. My parents kept telling me ‘You should try and take this really slow.’ and ‘Be really careful about all of this.’ I was a fifteen, sixteen year old kid I did not want to take it slow at all. I wanted to get right into it. But what eventually happened was, I finished drivers-ed and passed that class then the school pointed me to you guys, Woodrow Wilson Rehab Center. So I went there my first day and started working with Mary Brister and took those driving courses. It was a really, really great experience because you know, at first I was just thinking this is going to be horrible. I’m going to have to be with this driving teacher and I’m going to have to work so hard to convince her that this is what I can do.’ But it was so weird, on the first day she immediately said, “You know, George, I know you can do this, I know that you know how to drive. So we’re just going to make sure that we’re all sure that you can do this. That’s why I’m here to help you through this.” And that was really encouraging for me. So long story short we did all the time that we needed to do for me to learn and I’m glad we did that because it turn out that there were actually some things that I wasn’t ready for that I’m glad we had practiced. That’s my story of learning how to drive.

Mary Brister is an occupational therapist that specializes in adaptive driving instruction. Mary, welcome to the pod cast… Thank you, Rick… What was it like working with George as he learned how to drive with his feet?… To me what was interesting when he came in was he had been to a place, a different vendor, and had gone there for an evaluation and was told that he would need to use a foot steering system, which is a pretty expensive piece of equipment. And he said ‘I never tried that, I never was given the opportunity to try with my feet and I would really like to try that, would that be okay?’ I said ‘Well of course that’s totally fine.’ He said, ‘I do everything with my feet.’ That to me was just doing what he was used to, and giving him that opportunity was part of my job, I feel like. He caught on to the whole idea of driving so quickly. So we only needed to make a couple of modifications, like cover his wheel with disome to make it a bit stickier so that he had more to grip with his foot. Then we worked with Rehab engineering to make a signal extender so that he could get that with his, he was driving with his right foot, so his right foot was his steering foot, so he needed a signal extender to get over to the right side. Honestly, for me, it was easy for me, I mean, it really was… So, Mary, is it common in the world of occupational therapy and assistive driving instruction to help someone who doesn’t have arms learn to drive with their feet?… No, it’s not common that we see people without arms to begin with. But I feel like because they are so able to use their feet for other things that they can accommodate to that pretty well. Part of it for him was just how flexible he was, and how determined he was, kind of his body type so it all worked out fine for him. And it’s not, in my twenty-five years, I’ve never had that opportunity to work with somebody. But I also knew for him that it was this huge barrier for independence. If he could drive or he needed to, it was this huge deal for him. He was very respectful of that and knew that it was a big deal. He took it very seriously too. I mean, I think he was eighteen when I saw him and unlike some eighteen year olds, he was pretty cautious and vey open to my suggestions and feedback. But he really did an awesome job… We talked about this video in the gallery just a couple of minutes ago. I believe, Mary, you are actually the one who shot the video. Tell us what it was like that day and what the view from the passenger’s seat was as you shot this video that’s inspired so many people… It was the day he was going for his test and his mom and his, bother, not brother, his friend came with, and I said well let’s just try this drive. I just want to get a little bit on tape so that we have it to keep for other things. So we went through the drive-thru and he was, I could tell, George was a little nervous about that. It just happened that the person who took his order was you could tell a person in training and she was very focused on what she was doing but then she looked and I could tell she didn’t know what in the world to make of that. But he was excited about that and I was about being able to take him through something that was a very functional activity. And have him be successful at that and from there we went right to the DMV, in Harrisonburg he tested. I remember the DMV lady came out and she stood close to me and she said ‘You know he doesn’t have any arms? How is he going to drive like that?’ I said, ‘I know that. We just finished his training.’ And she said, ‘Is he really going to be able to do this?’ I said, ‘Well I wouldn’t have him here if he wouldn’t able to do it.’ And she, I remember her coming back in after his test and just being amazed with how well he did… You know the part of this video that strikes me is going through the fast food restaurant. I’ve been through this particular restaurant on more than one occasion and I’ve asked the lady in the months following the video about how it affected her; she still to this day will smile when she sees me come through because she knows about that day and remembers George coming through the drive-thru… You know I could just see for him, he could just link that to really being able to use that in his life you know, and say I was able to accomplish this, I was able to go through a drive-thru like and other eighteen year old can go through a drive-thru and that was successful. You know part of me wanted to make sure that the people at the drive-thru knew that we one: it was really amazing, but two: we weren’t goofing around about anything either that this was something that we were really doing as a part of our therapy program. And it ended up being that his mom shared that video with I think it was the police department in Richmond just to better educate people because I think there was somebody who misinterpreted, I don’t know if it was the video or George driving, thinking he was playing a joke kind of and that he was just being silly and pretending that he didn’t have any arms. But it was a real educational tool, I think, for people in Richmond to better understand disabilities and better understand what people can really achieve… Mary Brister, thank you for all the great work you do, helping individuals with disabilities learn to drive so they can go to work… I really enjoyed being on the pod cast. Think you, Rick… Always a pleasure to have you here in the VR Workforce Studio and on this pod cast.

So George what was the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do?… Yeah you know what? A lot of people ask me that. People ask me, ‘George, what’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do?’ And for a while I really didn’t know how to answer that question but now I can answer that question easily. The hardest thing that I’ve had to learn how to do is be a dad. You know, be a father. I knew it was going to be hard to take care of an infant. Being born without arms and kind of learning how to do all that, it’s difficult; it’s really, really hard. My son now is almost a year. So I will say that it’s much easier now to take care of him now that he’s more mobile, independent, and he can play by himself and feed himself his bottle and just eat food and now eat food that we eat because he has teeth and stuff. But back in the early days it was hard, it was difficult. So that would be the hardest thing that I have ever had to do… Now while driving is a huge key to success in vocational rehabilitation and a phenomenal accomplishment for you, George, this story just keeps getting better and better. Tell us about learning to play the guitar… So playing the guitar, long story short, I actually taught myself how to play. But before that I had taken bass lessons and cello lessons at a young age, so when I decided that I wanted to learn the guitar it came a little bit more naturally because it’s something that I’ve already had a mind for with music. The reason I learned to play guitar is because I was a high school student and I wanted to be cool I wanted girls to like me, and I wanted to fit in. So I learned to play the guitar and started writing songs. That’s the story. I tell people I wish there was some big musical epiphany that I had that guitar was what I was supposed to do. The truth is it was just a desire to be cool… George, I’ve seen the video on YouTube of you playing as Music Fest, it’s incredible. We have a link to it in the gallery. Tell us the story of performing with the Goo Goo Dolls… So being on stage with the Goo Goo dolls and playing Iris with them was one of the greatest experiences of my life. The way that actually happened was the summer after I graduated high school, that same summer I performed at a local fair, just here in town, where I’m from. And I played the song Iris by the Goo Goo Dolls. So I played that song, somebody out in the audience took a video of it on their phone and posted it on YouTube. And that video went viral; it went viral all over the internet. It just became very popular and a lot of people watched it, including the Goo Goo Dolls. The Goo Goo Dolls saw that video, themselves. Somebody, I guess they sent it to the drummer, Mike. So they sent it to him and he loved it. And he showed the rest of the band. And then Johnny Rzeznik who is the lead singer of the band said ‘Contact him we need to get him to play with us.’ So that’s what they did. They sent me a message on my Facebook page just introducing themselves saying that they want me to come play with them on stage and Music Fest in Bethlehem Pennsylvania. And that would have been in just about a month or so since that video. I couldn’t believe it. This was literally on of the craziest things that has ever happened to me. But it’s definitely one of the best experiences that I’ve ever had the privilege to live out… George, you stand out as one of the most significant success stories in vocational rehabilitation. Where did you get the drive and inspiration to overcome the obstacles that were holding you back from realizing your dreams?… You know, finding that drive and inspiration to do what I’ve done and to be who I am, you know it hasn’t always been there. First let me say, to truly understand it, we need to go back into the hard times in my life. Back in middle school is when things were really, really difficult for me. It was a time when I had a hard time accepting who I was and being born without arms really took a toll on me because I was treated roughly at some points in my life and some kids were just kind of being cruel. It’s middle school, you know. I was bullied, I was picked on, and I was called names. So that really hurt me in a way that I didn’t think I would ever recover from. But eventually something miraculous happened to me where I had a completely different mindset of who I am. You see, I decided that sitting in my sorrow and sitting in my pity wasn’t going to get me anywhere. And nothing is going to change by doing that. Nothing is going to change by me complaining and just being really sad all the time about who I am. Nothing is going to change. So I had to kind of get hard on myself and really hammer down on myself and say ‘You know I got to change this mindset that I have. And that’s exactly what I did. I decided that, ‘Sure, you know what? I don’t have any arms but that’s not going to stop me from doing what I want to do.’ And I think that’s what really got me to fully go ahead on in perusing my passion… So what advice would you have for a person with a disability that’s struggling right now?… The advice I would give you is simply this, to not give up. In life as a whole there are going to be set backs, and obstacles, and trials for us. And I know looking for a job, and looking for a place to belong, and something to do when you’re put in a situation where you don’t get that and you’re facing this battle, it’s really easy to be discouraged and to begin to start feeling like you can’t do anything and you’re not worth it and you’re not good enough. A lot of the same thought that I had. But the advice that I’d give you is just to remember that you are worth it and you are good enough and just because you are facing this trial now doesn’t mean that there’s something good down the road for you. So remember just to never give up. To never lose hope because hope in the end is what we got and what keeps us going… What advice would you have for an employer who is thinking of hiring someone with a disability?… I would tell you to absolutely do that. It might be easy sometimes to look at all the different options of the people to hire, maybe get in the mindset of maybe someone who is not disabled is more qualified than somebody who is disabled and more able bodied. That’s an easy mind set to get into but I would encourage you not to think like that. Firstly because that’s not always entirely true and secondly because then we’re missing out on the bigger picture. You know, people with disabilities, when they are hired to a position, number one it looks good on the employer’s part, it looks really good. And secondly that person who has a disability who is part of your company or this job, it’s an inspiration to everyone else. People who walk into your company or your store or whatever it is and they see that person working hard despite their disability. It is a huge inspiration to them. And they’ll go home and tell their families and their friends ‘Man, this company is great. They’re just great.’ It inspires them. So that’s what I would tell you if you’re thinking about hiring someone with a disability. Or maybe you’re struggling because there’s somebody else who seems more capable or able bodied, I would just encourage you to keep that in mind just that people are inspired when they see companies reach out to people with disabilities, and giving them jobs, and places to work, and places to be… George Dennehy, it’s been a real gift to spend a few minutes with you, always a pleasure to hear from you. And we wish you nothing but continued success in your career as a motivational speaker and a musician, good luck in 2015 and beyond… Well thanks again, Rick, for having me on the show. It’s always an honor to be a part of what you’re doing and this pod cast, it truly is an incredible thing. People need this and people love this. So I just want to thank you for letting me be a part of it and I hope everything goes well. See you… You can follow George Dennehey on Twitter @thatarmlessguy you can find him in the iTunes store or visit him at his website The one and only George Dennehey.

Until next time, this is Rick Sizemore inviting you to join us in creating hope and a path forward to employment so individuals with disabilities can work and lead more productive lives; enhance our Virginia workforce and move our economy forward.

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