Even though he stands just 3-foot-9, was born without hands and has short legs with no knees, all of his life John Robinson strived to be thought of as just another fellow. He built a life, with a regular-guy family and a regular-guy job, never wanting to think of himself as exceptional or for others to think of him that way.
Dan Swinton didn’t oblige him.
Swinton, who works with Robinson at WMHT, the local public-television station, watched his colleague at work for a year and a half and became convinced that what he was witnessing, Robinson’s daily existence and example, was indeed extraordinary.
“John is not in parades advocating for the disabled. He is not busting down legislators’ doors,” says Swinton. “He advocates just by living his life the way he does. I wanted to tell that story.”
The result is “Get Off Your Knees: The John Robinson Story,” an hourlong documentary that Swinton produced, directed, edited and helped shoot. It premieres at 8 tonight on WMHT-TV Ch. 17, with an encore at 7 p.m. Sunday. The program also will be offered to stations nationwide through American Public Television, and a DVD version is available. A book with a similar title, “Get Off Your Knees: A Story of Faith, Courage, and Determination,” co-written by Robinson and golf writer Dave Allen, has been published by Syracuse University Press.
The film tells the remarkable story of Robinson, now a 40-year-old husband and father, who was born a congenital amputee, with arms that end at the elbows and legs with feet at the bottom of his femurs, where his knees should be.
Although baby John was healthy at birth, the blunt fact and sight of his truncated limbs devastated his parents.
“The experience becomes like a death … of your image of what this baby could be,” says his father, a retired Episcopal priest, in a scene in the documentary. Robinson’s mother, who died before the film was made, at first didn’t want to look at or hold her son, but once they brought him home from the hospital, parents and child bonded.
“I could see instantly that he was a Robinson,” his father says in the film.
With determination and a hard-headedness that later would serve him well in a career in television ad sales, the young Robinson defied odds and expectations. He learned to walk, first on his feet, later with prosthetics, and snapshots in the film show him wearing hook-handed prosthetic arms as well.
Robinson hated the prosthetics. He stopped using them altogether when, in early high school, he was told that if he wished to commit to a life at a “normal” height, atop artificial legs, doctors would need to cut his feet off to make the limbs fit properly.
“So that was the end of that,” Robinson says today, chatting during a phone interview from his office at WMHT’s North Greenbush headquarters, where, as director of corporate support, he supervises an underwriting staff of three.
Robinson learned to drive. He learned to play lacrosse and golf. He learned to dress himself — quite a feat, as a scene in the film shows, given the trickiness of fastening shirt and pants buttons when one does not have hands. After college at Syracuse University, he began a career in ad sales, where, he says, he liked the reassurance of knowing that he kept his job not out of pity but because, since his earnings were based on sales commissions, he was valued as a revenue source for his employer.
In recent years, Robinson began to soften his opposition to being seen as an example.
“I remember as a child not having any disabled role models,” says Robinson. “I recognize there’s a need for inspiration in everyday lives. If I can provide that in some small part for somebody else, I can deal with being out there in public.” Today he gives speeches about his life to school and community groups, one of which is depicted in the film.
“I’m never going to thumb-wrestle with you, I’m never going to be the center of the basketball team,” Robinson tells an attentive auditorium full of students. “What matters is how I deal with the body I have and the person that I am. … First impressions may not be unimportant, but they can be overcome.”