Getting to Know You
Your name: Gary Karp
What’s your connection with disability?
I fell out of a tree and was paralyzed with a spinal cord injury at T12 in 1973.
Star Trek or Star Wars?
Start Trek, for sure! Original Series, but eventually I took to the Next Generation. Picard is OK with me.
If you could live in any other country for 2 years, where would you go?
I’d live in France. I want to master the language, which feels right on my tongue, I like that they are more discrete and low key, and I’d gain some great cooking skills.
What dish would your bring to our community picnic potluck?
I make pretty incredible whipped sweet potatoes (ginger is my secret ingredient), but would bake, too. I have a wall of ribbons for my breads, scones, and cinnamon rolls from the Marin County Fair.
Now That We’ve Been Introduced…
What do you do:
I’m on a mission of truth, to get the world straight on the real human experience of living with a disability.
I communicate the “Modern Disability” experience — as a writer, a speaker, a trainer, and a performer. I travel. I get to meet an amazing array of fascinating people. I run the business that it takes to be able to do all of that.
Right now I’m focused on developing a computer-based awareness program. My goal is nothing short of transforming workplace culture so that people with disabilities can be seen accurately for who they are and what they have to offer. I’ve done on-camera interviews with twenty people with a range of disabilities who will appear throughout the course. Their eloquence and authenticity — not to mention their drive to live a full life like anyone else — are unmistakeable. These days I’m spending a lot of time in Final Cut Pro X. That’s the fun part.
How did you come to be doing what you do? How has your career trajectory flowed?
To really go back to the beginning, it was when I first held a guitar when I was eight, and started learning the Peter, Paul and Mary songs that my older brother was into. By fifteen I was performing in local coffeehouses, and was active in the school chorus. That’s what got me used to being in front of people. In high school, we had an FM radio station where I did the news and then was a DJ. That’s what got me using my voice in a formal way.
I read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand when I was sixteen, and then earned a graduate degree in architecture in 1980 from a school where it took me five years to get the architecture building accessible. They had to carry me up and down steps in the meantime, having been injured just prior to starting there. I became a leader on the architectural student scene, president of the school chapter and then a national board member, hosting a regional conference. That’s what got me going as an advocate and organizer.
The part of architecture I was best at was graphic design, which led to an eleven year career in the presentation graphics industry as a computer graphics production artist, manager, and as the desktop evolved, an “intrepreneur.” That got me experience in business, during which time I was also speaking at professional conferences.
The intensive computer work — and various other stresses — caused tendinitis in my wrists and elbows, so I had to leave that career. In 1993 I began consulting in office ergonomics, and was writing online about it. That attracted the attention of an editor who liked my writing and almost miraculously she was starting a series of consumer-targeted medical books. That led to a contract, and in 1999 my first book, Life On Wheels: For the Active Wheelchair User was published.
That is what set me on the course I’m on now, drawing from all of these things — performance, my voice, graphic design, organizing, business — in service of the disability awareness message.
Where would you like to see yourself in 5 years?
In five years I expect my computer-based training to have had an impact on a huge number of people, having changed not only the workplace, but society in general. This is the form of advocacy I’ve always had in mind. From the day I returned to the community after rehab in 1973, it was clear that there was a huge disconnect between who we are and how we live on one hand, and how we are generally viewed by individuals and our culture on the other.
In five years I plan on having produced more computer-based disability training programs, and to be doing keynotes for many more kinds of audiences.
I have a few dreams of what to do with the substantial income I expect to generate with this. I’ll put some of it into the hands of great disability organizations, for one. I might even create a couple of my own, such as a group to help get wheelchairs properly specified and configured for people (currently a total nightmare), and an effort to increase the share of the housing stock — especially freestanding homes, rentals included — which is accessible.
Not to be morbid, but what do you want people to remember about you when you’ve gone?
I’m sure they’ll remember my juggling, because almost everyone who has seen me speak remembers that. My ultimate dream is that people will remember me for helping reveal the shared, universal humanity in all of us, and that the example of people with disabilities is not about heroism or tragedy, but a demonstration of how people get on with living when they get what they need. And when they make the personal choice to move forward.
Who or what inspires you?
I’m inspired by people who have worked really hard to get good at what they have the ability and talent to do, and keep moving when it’s not fun or the process is slow and frustrating. I’m inspired by great film.
If you could say something to yourself in the past – that is, the you that was really struggling with something related to disability – what would you say?
I remember it being difficult to just let people know I was paralyzed. This was a pretty early stage, but it took a little while to get relaxed enough to just let people know that it’s a fact of who I am. Oh, and then there was the part about sex. That took a little getting used to. But all it took was chemistry with a good woman, and I found my way.
What do you like about your particular disability?
Always having a place to sit.
Any one thing that you wish people would *get* about disability?
That it’s not the big deal people think it is. That it’s about adaptation, not “overcoming.” That giving people the resources and support it takes to succeed is a great investment. That the current social messages about disability are almost totally disconnected from the reality of the human experience of having a disability. That someone with a disability of any kind could be dynamite in bed. (OK, that was more than one. Too bad.)
What single piece of technology makes your life easier?
My Mac. Nothing to do with my disability, just the most incredible (and sometimes addictive) tool in my life.
Where else can we find you online? My YouTube Channel, LinkedIn, Twitter @GaryLKarp, Facebook.com/ModernDisability.
Website (if you have one) + URL: ModernDisability.com, ModernDisabilityTraining.com, GaryKarpSpeaks.com