TORONTO — When Alvin Law was born without arms 51 years ago in Saskatchewan, his birth parents put him up for adoption, worried that they wouldn’t be able to care for him and support him for the rest of his life.
Today, Law is an accomplished musician, motivational speaker and father, and he can do every task from driving to dressing himself independently, using his feet for hands.
“There were no excuses, ever,” he told his rapt audience of third through eighth graders at Leo Baeck Day School’s south campus, where he launched the Gail Debow Family Education Program with Farah and Martin Perelmuter of Speakers’ Spotlight.
Law credits his adoptive parents’ tough-love approach with forcing him to learn independence. “They loved me, but they had expectations,” he said.
Law’s birth defect was the result of his birth mother using the morning sickness drug Thalidomide, which was introduced in the late 1950s and withdrawn in 1961. The drug similarly affected more than 13,000 other babies.
Without the use of arms, Law began using his feet for everyday tasks instead. “When I started playing with my teddy bear with my toes, it wasn’t a novelty – it was a sign,” he said. Now, he wears a watch on his right ankle and instinctively uses his feet to punctuate his speech.
For Law, who began working as a motivational speaker in 1981, the most important message to pass on to the students is the one of perseverance in his talk, “There’s No Such Word As Can’t.”
“You don’t succeed in life by hoping for it – you do it,” he told the young students. Law told his story of growing up and being treated as a regular child by his family. When he reached the age of about 11, he was repeatedly made fun of in his school’s music class. Suddenly, he began noticing sniggers from classmates and pitying or disturbed stares from strangers, and his carefree childhood seemed to reach an abrupt end.
“I didn’t like being made fun of. I didn’t like being called names. I didn’t like being me,” he said.
One day, after a particularly bad day, when a stranger gawked at him while he ate a hamburger with his feet when out with his father, Law went home dejected and vowed never to leave his house.
Noticing his broken spirit, his parents, in a rare moment of pity, brought home a drum set. Law practised on the set with incredible determination. He showed the fruits of his labour to the students on a snare drum, playing beats with incredible speed and leaving the kids “ooh-ing” and “ah-ing” at his skill.
As he gained confidence again as a young man, Law adjusted his attitude, realizing that if he put in the effort, and maintained a positive outlook despite his challenges, he could achieve his goals.
“There is a big difference in our world from thinking that we deserve things to earning things,” he said, insisting that there is no substitute for hard work.
Now that Law has overcome so much, he is able to laugh at many of the things that once hurt him, such as the stares and pity from strangers. He told the students a story of going antiquing with his wife, when an elderly couple was staring at him. He found a pair of mannequin arms among the antiques, picked one up under his chin and called out to his wife, “Darlene! I may have found them!”
His sense of humour about the tough things in life shows how much he takes his own advice to heart. Law hopes to pass on his positivity and perseverance to others.
“I want you to go home today with some perspective,” he told the students, urging them to realize that sometimes challenges can seem very big, but they are not impossible to overcome. “You have to imagine what your future can be, and you can never, ever give up.”