Confessions of a Motivational Speaker

Illustration by Mark Weber

Motivational speaking is a large industry marked by a considerable subset of speakers with disabilities. Speakers with disabilities are hired to fire up audiences at corporate or government meetings, association conferences or events at schools and universities. They make a considerable mark on a wide swath of people. For better or for worse.

For many in the audience, these speakers are perceived as models of the disability experience. They are the closest many nondisabled people will get to a real disabled person, and they will influence their understanding of disability. So it’s fair to take a closer look and question this industry’s effect on cultural beliefs about disability.

The answers turn out to not be so simple. I’ve been a wheelchair user for 46 years and a professional speaker for over 20. I continue to struggle with how I can motivate and inspire without pandering to dangerous stereotypes and misperceptions of disability. It’s an ever-present boundary that I’m fervently conscious of not wanting to roll across.

Those of us living with disabilities know beyond a doubt that much of what nondisabled people think about us is far apart from the truth of our lives. At the least, their attitudes directly translate into patronizing behavior toward us. At the worst, they reinforce the kinds of cultural beliefs and policies that interfere with people with disabilities getting a fair shot at their real potential.

A speaker with a disability is going to either reinforce these beliefs or give their audience members a fresh perspective so they can reconsider their assumptions. There is no in between.

Deb Dagit, who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, shares these concerns. Having faced successive barriers to jobs she was fully qualified for, she finally landed at Merck Pharmaceuticals as manager of diversity and inclusion. Now retired from Merck, Dagit speaks widely on disability awareness in the workplace.

“In my professional life, one of the most awkward and stressful situations I experienced was when a speaker with a disability took the stage,” she says. “Would they overshare their medical history? Cause everyone to cry and feel sorry for them? Depict people with disabilities as needing to achieve heroic physical feats to demonstrate worth? Represent their disability as the worst thing that could happen and in need of a cure?”

Stand and Deliver

Crowds gasp and applaud when Scott Burrows stands up.

Crowds gasp and applaud when Scott Burrows stands up.

Watching Scott Burrows’ speaker preview video provides a perfect encapsulation of the conundrum. A highly-rated motivational speaker and author of, “Vision Mindset Grit: How to Stand Up When Life Paralyzes You,” Burrows rolls onto stage in his manual wheelchair and tells audiences how he refused to accept his doctor’s prognosis that he would not regain any function after his cervical spinal cord injury from a car accident at age 19.

Partway into his presentation, Burrows scoots forward in his chair, lifts his thin legs onto the floor, leans forward, and with a dramatic, deep exhalation — he stands up. Boom! Automatic cheering standing ovation.

That reaction sells, and it’s surely partially responsible for the long list of corporate clients on Burrows’ web site. That standing moment is his trademark move.

“I use getting out of the wheelchair as a metaphor for standing up to any challenge,” Burrows says sincerely. His honest intention is for people to see that you can accomplish what seems impossible by staying with the process, sticking to a vision with a mindset of grit.

Yet it’s hard not to see people’s immediate response to his standing up as proof that what is foremost in their thoughts is that the ability to stand and walk is paramount above all else. Despite Burrows’ stated intentions, I can only see that moment as reinforcing the notion of the chair as confinement. That moment is counter to the message that accepting ourselves as we are — walking or not — is what truly counts.

This is precisely Dagit’s concern with regard to employment. “I fear [some speakers] might undo all the hard work that has gone into convincing recruiters to seek out people with disabilities as a rich source of talent,” she says. “It reinforces the idea that what our community needs most is charitable giving so we can be cured and cared for.”

Storytellers Supreme

The roots of this misperception are not hard to understand. Think about it. Disability is the last thing anyone wants to happen in their lives. Even those of us with disabilities don’t want one we don’t have. The notion of living, much less thriving with a disability strikes most people as incredibly difficult, if not unfathomable. From there, it’s not a big leap to the notion that anyone living well with a disability is “inspirational.”

Audience members arrive pre-loaded with these beliefs. They flare up the moment the speaker takes the stage. Scott Chesney is another prominent speaker with a disability. He woke up one day paraplegic from a spinal stroke when he was still a teenager. “People come in with preconceived notions in terms of what quality of life you can have,” he says. “I’ll put things right there: ‘You might be thinking this, but I’m going to challenge you to question that belief system [and] expand it, enhance it.’”

Chesney believes that simply telling his story — of marriage and children, world travel, surfing — gives his audiences the opportunity to reconsider their own possibilities. “I provide them with inspiration to say, ‘There’s something that Scott has connected with that has allowed him to thrive, not just survive,’” he says. “Then they buy in.”

Chesney’s technique fits perfectly with the advice speaking coach Jane Atkinson gives to her students. “I encourage my clients to provide a crafted presentation that allows the audience to be a part of their journey,” says Atkinson, author of The Epic Keynote.

“When you walk out of these doors, you will set world records,” Chad Hymas tells audiences.

“When you walk out of these doors, you will set world records,” Chad Hymas tells audiences.

Like Chesney, Chad Hymas has built his career around mastering how to lead audiences on this journey. He became quadriplegic in 2001 when a ton of hay fell on him. Married with two children and the owner of a business with 52 employees, Hymas describes his early feelings in his talks. “At the age of 27, I was completely disconnected from hope, because I saw no vision in,” he pauses meaningfully and waves his quad hands at the audience, “this.” He describes how his father helped him turn the corner by telling him, “dreams are not destroyed by your circumstance. Dreams are destroyed by your belief.”

Hymas doesn’t just want his audiences “inspired.” He gives them a call to action. “Inspiration is a catalyst,” he says. “You can be inspired almost every day. Now what are you gonna do with that? When you walk out of these doors,” he tells his audiences, “you will set world records.”

Chesney, citing research that says it takes 21 days to change a habit, also issues grandiose challenges to his audiences. “Do these things every day. I’m going to promise you that, professionally and personally, your life will be enhanced.” Such lines are the stock and trade of the inspirational speaker.

The Speaking Industry

Make no mistake — inspirational speaking is a business, and there is a lot of money at stake [See sidebar]. Speakers either operate their own businesses, such as Hymas and Chesney, or use speakers bureaus that take a share of their fee but provide marketing and client relations. Some speakers have sponsorship relationships, as I did for 10 years with the Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center. My message aligned with their mission. They funded me to speak to occupational and physical therapy students about how people adapt to traumatic change. In return I shared information about their programs with thousands of budding young professionals.

Many successful inspirational speakers simply don’t have disability advocacy on their radar. It’s just not their priority to track the latest activities of ADAPT or the current legislative agenda.

The National Speakers Association is the home of professional speakers, including me. It’s where I first met Hymas. Its culture is devoted to business success. It’s not a place where you have philosophical conversations about your impact on social models of disability. It’s about stirring an audience, giving them something relevant, mastering the craft of speaking and pleasing your clients so you can draw top dollar fees.

Hymas has earned NSA’s Certified Speaking Professional status and is among a select group inducted into the Council of Peers Award for Excellence Hall of Fame. I asked Hymas if he had heard of inspiration porn, the term popularized by Stella Young’s 2014 TED Talk, “I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You.” He had not. But he understood the concept when we discussed it.

This is not to criticize Hymas, but I think it’s a fair indicator that he’s not a follower of disability culture. And he knows it. “I don’t speak at disability awareness conferences,” he says. “It’s not my expertise.” On the other hand, Chesney, Dagit, and I are all happily available to speak on disability history, etiquette and anything else.

All this is to say that speakers must design their speeches and their message to appeal to a given market and what those target clients are looking for in a speaker. Have no doubt; those clients are looking for dramatic impact. They want their attendees to leave the room uplifted, to be entertained, to hopefully come away with a life-shifting experience.

They want to see that audience on their feet cheering. Otherwise, the speaker is unlikely to be invited back or referred to other big money clients. Both of these are widely acknowledged as mandatory results for the success of a professional speaker. Go to the website of any of the speakers highlighted in this article, and you’ll see the cheering “standing O” on their demo video. The temptation to indulge in gratuitous emotion, to engage in inspiration porn, is very powerful for a speaker with a disability, consciously or not. That’s what sells.

Perhaps this pressure is responsible for “those moments,” where speakers go too far. Hymas is fond of referring to his body being “95% numb,” and has a tendency to self-aggrandize. “I’m the only quadriplegic on record that travels the world alone,” he says.

Such a claim wouldn’t fly with an audience of people with disabilities, but most of the crowds to which Hymas speaks likely have few, if any, people to call BS. It’s a trend that can be seen across many motivational speakers — not just those with disabilities. In detailing their own accomplishments, they end up amplifying their own egos, rather than shedding much light on the process of how they actually did it — as well as the moments of real difficulty and self-doubt we usually face along the way. Says speaking coach Jane Atkinson, “The sooner the speaker realizes that it’s not really about them, but rather it’s about the audience, the better and more successful they will be.” The difference with disability speakers is the embellishments have the potential to strengthen harmful, false stereotypes.

Truly Inspiring

In reality, there is no need for embellishment. Hymas, Chesney, Burrows and speakers like them have done their time with their disabilities, made their adjustments, and are living the lives that all of us are fighting to ensure for anyone with a disability. They present themselves with confidence, delivering talks that take real measures of intelligence, caring and hard work to develop and market. To suggest they haven’t earned the right to be models of the disability experience would be an insult.

We have to believe that the audience is taking away something positive, even if that something is simply seeing the possibility of living fully with a disability.

That said, I would urge any speaker with a disability billing themselves as inspirational to get to know the disability advocacy world better. My bet is that none of them would have an issue with reconsidering messages they might not realize are reinforcing counterproductive stereotypes. Is it really necessary to risk crushing the key message because you get a huge ovation for standing up out of a wheelchair?

Much of the notion of disability as inspiration has been badly skewed and tainted, but I firmly and passionately believe that the disability experience is profoundly inspirational. Not in a gratuitously emotional way, but through a much simpler recognition of what people with disabilities are demonstrating every day. We model a universal capacity to adapt, to accept ourselves as we are, to solve problems through a unique, independence-driven perspective and to fight for the innate right to live the lives we know are possible. That is the message I’ve spent all these years trying to get across.

If people really took a closer look at our story, they would see that the modern disability experience proves how remarkable we all are by our very nature. Imagine a culture that operates on the assumption that everyone has the inner tools to adapt and thrive, where a global commitment to access, inclusion and independence creates a far better world, and where everyone gets what they need to succeed.

What could be more inspirational than that?

How I Speak

Gary Karp

Gary Karp

My approach as a public speaker is to educate audiences about the real human experience of disability, to get to the universal qualities disability shows us about all people and to tell the story of how dramatically the world has changed to allow huge numbers of disabled people to fully emerge into our society.

My main goal is to push societal beliefs towards creating a better world for people with disabilities, but I also do my best to entertain with humor and (as those of you who’ve seen me know) thrill and amaze with my advanced juggling skills. I’m committed to the craft of speaking, and I consider myself a performer who is on a mission to share the disability message in a meaningful way. I want people to gain a deeper sense of their own potential and, yes, be inspired.

When I began to speak in public, I would gloss over the story of my paralysis for fear of overplaying myself. I wanted to avoid the risk of either evoking pity or giving the impression that my active life with paralysis somehow makes me special. One of the core lessons of living with a disability for me is that I discovered something in myself that is absolutely and purely human, and therefore in all of us.

But people wanted to hear more. Telling my story in a way that people could relate to without playing to their pre-loaded assumptions about disability has been one of my biggest challenges as a professional speaker. I never billed myself as an inspirational or motivational speaker — though as a wheelchair user I couldn’t prevent others from describing me in those terms. The last thing I wanted was to be thought of as someone who offered an emotional pep talk. I’m committed to real substance and insight.

Today, I describe how people with disabilities are emerging into the modern world thanks to higher survival rates, improved access, greater mobility, higher-level education, empowerment by technology and civil rights protections. It’s not an inspirational thing. It’s just more doable because we’re getting shit out of the way and designing innovative solutions. It’s an amazing story of radical social change.

A model I use is the notion of “Walking Mind, Wheeling Mind.” People who consider us “wheelchair-bound” are viewing us through a walking lens. I explain that, from the perspective of not being able to walk, the chair is a precious mobility tool that allowed me to do all I’ve done since my injury. It doesn’t confine me; it liberates me. Most people get it.

Rather than the potentially gratuitous emotional hit, I’m after a simple “aha” moment. The feedback I appreciate most is when people say I helped them get inside the humanity of disability in a way they could understand. I especially love when someone says, “I guess if I had to, I could do it, too.” That’s what I go for.

My clients tend to be disability-related events, universities, rehab and healthcare centers. I also speak to corporate human resources and diversity groups who need to reach out to the fullest labor pool, which happens to include a growing number of people who have disabilities.

The fact is, the message that “living with disability is not such a big deal; anyone can do it when they get the resources they need,” doesn’t sell to many clients looking for an inspirational speaker with a disability. It’s definitely limited my opportunities. I’ve yet to figure out how to make the simple message of adaptation and inclusion exciting enough to get on those stages — regardless of how advanced my juggling skills are.

Aron Ralston

Aron Ralston

Big Bucks

Mastering the craft of speaking can be a lucrative undertaking.

Take Aron Ralston. You know him — he cut off his arm after six days of being trapped by a large boulder while hiking solo in a remote area.  James Franco played him in the Oscar-nominated film, 127 Hours. Ralston and I were both speakers years ago in Jacksonville, Florida, at a rehab hospital event. At the time he had long, curly blonde hair and a casual style. The story of his self-amputation was definitely fascinating, but it was mainly just a narrative. Now Ralston is a highly polished speaker who sports a short haircut and wears suits on stage. He clearly has had some high-level coaching and script development. Aron’s talk is far more engaging and humorous than when I saw him. And now he pulls in up to $50K an appearance.

Gabriel Cordell wheeled across the U.S. in a manual chair — $15-$25K a talk. Bethany Hamilton returned to professional surfing after losing an arm to a shark — $30–$50K. Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to climb Mount Everest — $50–$57K a pop. Peter Dinklage, a little person and the star of Game of Thrones — a minimum of $100K per talk.

That sounds like crazy money, doesn’t it? But take the annual conference of the Society for Human Resource Management — 15,000 people attend at $1,500 apiece on average. That’s over 22 million dollars to play with. Top speaker fees are pocket change for them.

Likewise, for a large corporation that wants to pump up its sales force, a hundred grand for an “inspiring” speaker with a disability story can be paid back multiple times over with just a few more new accounts.

If you have a disability, a compelling story or talent, a comfort with speaking in public, the right management or business skills, and a desire for your life to make a difference to others, how are you not going to chase down pots of gold like these?

** This post was originally published on

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