When an Ending Arrives in the Middle: A Story of Perseverance

Ron Turcotte 2It took only a few seconds for his career to end and his whole life to be altered. Some time would pass before the reality of this set in for him.

His life up to that point trained him to persevere. Born to a large French-Canadian Catholic family, he grew up without running water or central heating. With his brothers, he fished and hunted for food to help keep his family fed. He left school at 13 to join his father working as a lumberjack to provide for the family.

At 5’1’’ and 128 pounds, he was a small lumberjack. Though it wasn’t ideal for a  lumberjack, his size proved to be a great asset to his future. Knowing the risks of logging, his father put him to work with the horses rather than the more dangerous work in the forest. The young boy learned to be patient with the horses and build up the confidence they needed to complete the work.

The life of a lumberjack was not what he wanted. Looking around, he realized that lumberjacks work harder than most but never escape the struggle of earning a living wage. He saw it as a hard life with little reward. Not willing to live out that fate, he left the trade in the late 1950s. Eventually, he found work as a hot walker, someone who cares for race horses. His days of working with the logging horses soon paid off. When someone recommended that he become a jockey, he took their advice and soon was making money by winning competitions.

In 1971 his career reached a turning point when he met a big, clumsy, calm-tempered horse that would carry him to some of his most glorious victories. He earned a name for himself in the world of racing. Like logging, racing horses was hard work. The difference was horse racing provided the money that logging never would. And, he loved horse racing.

In 16 years, he earned over 3000 victories including the Triple Crown. Just before his 37th birthday in 1978, his career ended in a matter of seconds. Moments after leaving the starting gate, his horse lost its footing and he was hurled to the ground. He remained conscious and knew his injuries were disastrous. Later, he would learn that he was paralyzed from the waist down.

In the weeks following the accident, he remained hospitalized while undergoing numerous procedures. He grappled with the fact that he would probably not walk again and the reality that his successful career was over. While still in a back brace, he trained at the gym and made plans for how he would get around without the use of his legs. In a 1978 interview with People Magazine, he assured the reporter that his injuries would not prevent him from enjoying the outdoors or horse racing. He continues to love the sport and has become a devoted fan.

By the time he was injured, he had developed a reputation as a great horseman. He used his influence and wealth to became an advocate for jockey’s with disabilities. To this day, he raises funds for disability programs and works with the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund (PDJF).

Ron Turcotte 1If you’ve seen the movie or read the book, you probably recognize the story of Ron Turcotte who rode Secretariat to the Triple Crown victory in 1973. Turcotte and his wife now live on 400 acres near the area where he grew up. He regularly returns to Belmont, the site of his famous winning ride on Secretariat and the place where his career came to an end. In June 2014, he told a reporter for New York Daily News: “The accident is behind me,” he says. “I take what comes along. I’ve never looked back, and I’m not going to start looking back now.” One way or another, he continues to love horse racing and find ways to be involved in the sport.

The Courage to Follow a Dream

At birth, the doctor told his parents to put him in an institution. It was the 1960s and the community was not equipped to handle children with disabilities. His parents declined and raised him at home along with his other siblings.

At home with his family, he loved watching television shows like Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven. From an early age, he dreamed of being on an actor. His parents saw his enthusiasm and encouraged him to pursue this dream.

When he reached school age in the early 1970s, they met with a hurdle. Public schools were not ready to mainstream students with disabilities. His parents found a private boarding school that would give their son the education he needed to pursue his ambition.

Summers were spent back home at a summer camp on Long Island. While there, he met two professional musicians who worked as camp counselors. They introduced him to the love of music which would last for a lifetime.

After graduating from high school, he worked as an elevator operator and spent his spare time doing volunteer work and acting. During this time, he landed a role as a zombie in a reenactment of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. This fueled his love of performance and he continued to pursue his interest through taking night classes and reading up on his favorite actors.

In pursuit of his dream, he started attending auditions. In 1987, he won a role in a TV movie. Based on this performance, the network created a TV show that would center around him as the main character. In the show, his character is determined to be included in the community. It came at a time when the idea of inclusion was just beginning to emerge. That show ran for 4 years and earned him a Golden Globe nomination.

Since the show, he’s played in many TV series and movies. His position as an actor has given him a platform for disability advocacy. He became an ambassador for a well-known non-profit. As an ambassador, he has been able to promote independence and inclusion for people with disabilities. His time is split between doing basic office work and promotional work.

He is also a member of a folk band with the counselors from the summer camp he attended as a teenager. The trio sing songs that promote disability awareness and inclusion. They’ve sold thousands of albums and much of their proceeds have gone to the Very Special Arts, an organization that offers art programs to people with disabilities.

By now, you may have guessed that we are talking about Chris Burke, best known for his role as Corky on the TV show Life Goes On. He is also on the staff of the National Down Syndrome Society as a GoodWill ambassador.

Chris BurkeIn  1992, Burke co-authored a book about his life. He talks about the different ways that people view him, some with fear, others with pity, some (like his family) with love and friendship. His supporting family helped him realize that Down’s Syndrome did not need to prevent him from pursuing the things that he loves, music and acting.

In a time when exclusion was the norm, Burke’s parents refused to send their child to an institution. Keeping him home with the family gave them the opportunity to recognize his innate ambition and talent. Burke now encourages parents of children with disabilities to support them in their ambitions. He knows the value of a supportive family.

Next month, check back for a story about a man who started as a short, slender lumberjack and became a world renowned athlete.

“The Only Perspective That Matters”

He was a miracle baby. Born two months early in the 1950s, he spent his early days on life support in an incubator. The incubator saved his life but not his eyesight, which was lost due to the complications.

Music was both a love and talent from his earliest years. As a child, he played piano, harmonica, and drums. With a friend, he formed a duo that played at dances and parties. Ronnie White of the Miracles overheard the young boy playing harmonica and introduced him to the world of professional music. By 13, he had signed a contract with Motown and wrote a song that became a radio hit.

He was a success from the beginning. Before his teen years were over, he co-wrote much his own music and music for other groups, such as the Miracles and the Spinners. By the time he was 21, he had self-produced an album. As he explored his musical talent, he felt stifled by Motown, which had the final say in his music.

At 21, he created his own publishing company and renegotiated with Motown so he could have full artistic control over his music.  Armed with creative freedom, he paved a new way in R&B music. His innovations on the synthesizer produced a unique, new sound that topped the charts.

His formidable musical talent also gave him a platform for addressing the issues close to his heart.  At the height of his career, his music often addressed social issues such as poverty, drugs and war. His music was known for having a social conscience.

In the midst of this success, he was in a serious car accident that left him in a coma for several days. Within the year, he was back at his music career although the accident permanently damaged his sense of smell.

During his career, he has been the youngest person to have a number 1 hit, won several Grammy Awards for Album of the Year, and the Academy Award for Best Original Song among other awards. He has learned 9 instruments and is hailed for shaping the sound of pop music in the 70s and 80s.

As his sphere of influence grew, he used his wealth and position to promote causes that were important to him. Most notably, he successfully campaigned for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday to become a national holiday. In addition, he sponsored a home for children with disabilities, became active in Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Charge Against Hunger Program, and the anti-apartheid movement.

In a 2012 interview with The Guardian, he was asked if his disadvantages made him the success he is today. He responded, “Do you know, it’s funny but I never thought of being blind as a disadvantage… I am what I am. I love me! And I don’t mean that egotistically – I love that God has allowed me to take whatever it was that I had and to make something out of it.”

Generated by  IJG JPEG LibraryWho is this musician and activist? Stevie Wonder. In the 70s, his musical innovation led the way for a new sound in R&B.  His success in music gave him a public platform for speaking up about social issues. How did he achieve all this success? By recognizing that his innate talent didn’t need to be stifled by what people would often consider to be ‘disadvantages.’ Incight applauds everyone who refuses to let limiting beliefs stand in the way of their potential! Thank you, Stevie, for being an inspiration to us all.

Keep an eye out next month for the story of a man who got his start as a zombie in a Thriller reenactment and moved on to fulfill his dream of acting.

Incight Newsletter 9th Edition


Living with an Invisible Disability
Incight Gala 2012
iPad Training Program Launches
Thanks to Those who Support Incight’s mission
Golf Cart Parade the Perfect Venue
Incight Launches its First Adaptive Sports Festival

Click the image for more.

Incight Newsletter 8th Edition


— FEATURE STORY – Cameron Clapp
Triple amputee Cameron Clapp gets on with the business of living and motivating others to do the same
Incight proudly announces our newest scholars
How networking proved lucrative for an Incight Scholar
Blind students learn about nonprofits
Incight holds its first ice hockey sled event
Children with limb loss experience the joy in mobility At Camp No Limits

Scott Hatley Visits MDA

Last week, Scott Hatley made an exciting trip to the Muscular Dystrophy Association Headquarters in Tucson, AZ. After being involved with MDA for 23 years, Scott was able to reach out and increase Incight’s partnership with MDA. He appreciated the recognition from the national level and loved the tour of the headquarters. Favorite stops from the tour included the printing press, recording studio, and Jerry Lewis Shrine with the ‘famous’ letter from Gregory Peck. Scott sends an extra THANK YOU to Kim Bruna and Jodi Wolfe!

Check out the photos below!