By Amy Di Leo, MS
Adapt & Improvise
Some may call him a real-life MacGyver (“Macgyvering is an art of fixing things or creating things you need, without having all the proper parts and tools.” –Urban Dictionary). Others may recognize a Marine approach in Johnny Hudson (The unofficial U.S. Marine Corps mantra is “Adapt, Improvise, and Overcome.”).
But ask Hudson about his own motto or mantra, and he’ll simply say: “Make It Happen.” And Hudson does just that.
Born without arms or his left leg, the 40-year-old makes it happen every day using his only limb, which he calls “a short leg and foot with four toes” attached to his right hip.
“I use that foot to do pretty much everything,” explains Hudson, who grew up and lives in the small waterfront town of Edgewood, Maryland.
By everything, Hudson means everything—from writing, driving, and going up and down stairs to bowling, martial arts, or pretty much anything else he sets his sights on.
This Macgyvering gene is likely passed down from his mom and dad. After Hudson’s birth, Mom Peggy and Dad John were advised by doctors to turn their infant son over to the state of Maryland and “just go home.” The Hudsons did go home—but with their newborn son in their arms. They were intent on raising him like any other child.
“When I was born, my parents were told by the doctors that I would never be able to sit on my own, go to school, or even live a ‘normal’ life. However, I saw myself just like any other child learning how to do daily tasks like talking, reading, writing, and moving about.”
Before long, Hudson was adapting, improvising, and overcoming, though he didn’t realize he was doing any of that. For Hudson, he was simply living.
“I’ve never stopped to examine how I felt needing to adapt to everyday living. I just did,” he says. “I have learned how to use different parts of my body that others would not use to perform daily tasks, such as writing, typing, and feeding myself with my foot, opening doors with my chin and shoulder, carrying objects either with my mouth, chin, and shoulders, or my foot.”
Determination & Success
Early on, Hudson was determined to be just like any other kid. He started his education at a special needs school, but before long he had taught himself some basic skills, and his parents and teachers decided he would go to public kindergarten when he turned 5. He never looked back—Hudson remained in public school through his high school graduation and went to community college, Bible college, and then graduate school where he earned a master’s degree and doctorate in theology.
Many options were offered to Hudson, but ultimately, he explains, he was most successful teaching himself to adapt and navigate and figure it out on his own.
“In my early childhood, there were doctors and specialists who attempted to make me more ‘normal’ than what I am. For example, I had an electronic arm and an adaptive device that I sat in to help me ‘walk.’ I felt that for me, these devices just slowed me down and got in the way of me managing my everyday tasks. We ended up donating all of that equipment to other children who could use them.”
Besides his wheelchair and the van that he drives, most of what Hudson uses isn’t adaptive technology at all. It’s just modern technology that many of us use each day.
“I use an automatic door opener to go in and out of the house. The modern-day ‘smart home’ era has been a wonderful age to live in. I use Amazon Alexa and Apple HomeKit to perform many duties, including controlling my entertainment system, turning on and off the lights, and locking and unlocking my doors.”
Hudson’s most adaptive device is his specially equipped vehicle. As he explains: “I bought my van from a standard car lot and then had it modified to fit my specific needs. I have a remote that opens the side door and brings down the ramp. Once I enter, there’s a bracket on my wheelchair that locks into the driver’s side of the van. I use a joystick for the gas, brakes, and steering. By holding a stick in my mouth, I can operate a touchpad that allows me to start the vehicle, turn on the air conditioning, and activate the signal lights, windshield wipers, and all other necessary functions. There are beep tones that correspond with the solfège (do, re, mi, etc.), and each one has a different function. For example, the first tone turns on my high beams, and the second tone is my turn signal. There are also a few buttons that I can access with my head.”
Hudson says he always wanted to drive, but it took him a while to navigate the system. He needed a special driver’s license and to attend specialized driver education classes, and he had to get an adaptive vehicle. On top of that, there’s the financial cost of retrofitting the vehicle. Hudson says the adaptations to his van alone cost around $100,000, which included the ramp in the vehicle and all the electronic modifications—all on top of the cost of the vehicle itself. But Hudson says there is no question that it was worth the effort and cost.
Freedom & Free Time
“My ambition to drive gave me the freedom and independence that every adult needs to be able to perform simple tasks in life, such as going to work, going to church, and taking your family places.”
Hudson says he has complete confidence in his own driving ability, yet he still calls driving “a very scary experience. Not only do you have to worry about your driving, but you have to worry about the driving of others as well. And it’s the other drivers I worry about!”
Even Hudson’s hobbies aren’t what you’d expect from someone without upper limbs.
“I am an orange belt in tae kwon do, and I intend to work toward getting my black belt in the future. In my spare time, I like to work with Photoshop photography, and I also love to bowl,” he says.
And Hudson doesn’t just bowl. He pitches the bowling ball with pinpoint precision, making strike after strike—with his foot. He says that as a kid he would bowl at birthday parties and goofing around with friends—always with bumpers.
“But one time,” he shares, “we took off the bumpers, and I kicked and rolled the ball down the alley trying to find a technique that worked for me. Little by little, I had success, and the bowling ball almost made it to the pins before going into the gutter. I kept trying, and gradually I got better and was able to knock some pins down. Then I made friends with some of the senior bowlers from the morning league at the bowling alley, so I started going in early and bowling with them. I also met a couple of professional bowlers from the area who taught me a lot. I joined their league and did some tournaments for a while.”
Today, with two sons under the age of 7 and a loving wife, Hudson says he doesn’t make it to the alleys very much anymore. But he has more important things to keep him occupied. With all he has accomplished so far, Hudson says all of it pales in comparison to the challenge of being a parent.
Parenthood & Mentoring
“I am responsible for the raising and training of two precious young men,” explains the proud dad. “It is my duty as their father to teach them to love others for who they are, and to perform their daily tasks with the body that God has given them. On top of that, I am also a little scared that others will pick on them because of my disability. It is great to see already that JD, my 6-year-old, has learned to teach other children. Recently at a playground, a boy started asking me questions and making fun of me just a little. JD heard the boy, ran over to him, and told him, ‘That’s my daddy, and he was born without arms.’”
While being a dad is a main focus for Hudson, he is looking to get back into the workforce again. His career experience ranges from working at an electronics store, as a 911 operator, and as an usher for the Aberdeen IronBirds, Cal Ripken Jr.’s short-season baseball team. Also, for the past 22 years, Hudson has been an inspirational speaker. He has shared his story at churches, prisons, schools, and camps across the country and serves as a mentor as well.
“I met a young man with a similar disability to me, and I had the privilege of teaching him how to eat food with his foot for the first time. That was truly an awesome experience.”
When Hudson speaks to others, his message is simple: “Focus on the quality of life that you have, the people you love, and the people who love you. And focus on the positive…. I really don’t worry about failing too much. The only way you fail is when you give up.”
I’ve never stopped to examine how I felt needing to adapt to everyday living. I just did.”
Resources for Adaptive Devices
- AliMed — www.alimed.com/alimed/rehabilitation
- EasySpace Pull Down Shelves — www.pulldownshelves.com
- Health Products for You — www.healthproductsforyou.com
- Maddak — www.maddak.com/index.php
- Texas Assistive Devices — www.n-abler.org
- TRS — www.trsprosthetics.com
Images courtesy of Johnny Hudson.