Turning Challenges into Opportunities: A Conversation With Justin Skeesuck From “I’ll Push You”

Justin Skeesuck, a 48-year-old Idahoan featured in the documentary “I’ll Push You,” started losing the use of his hands in 2010. So, in 2012, he moved to Italy.

For a lot of people that might not make a lot of sense, especially given his situation. In 2002, Skeesuck was diagnosed with an autoimmune and neurological condition called multifocal acquired motor axonopathy (MAMA for short), which causes progressive muscle weakness. It eventually affected the use of his hands, which was a difficult pill to swallow for a graphic designer who used them all the time.

An Unexpected Adventure

Justin and his wife had saved money to travel and found a steady stream of income from renting their house out, so it was an opportune time to take a chance on living abroad. Plus, he and his wife Kirstin wanted to do this before his disease progressed further, and traveling would become even more difficult. This was the best opportunity they’d have to try living in another country.

“I had the most amazing experiences there, and it gave me clarity and time to evaluate where that next chapter was for me professionally,” Skeesuck said.

It was during that three-month stay in Italy that his lifelong best friend, Patrick Gray, followed up on an idea they had been discussing. What if they trekked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago, which began in France and snaked through Northern Spain, together in a specially outfitted, off-roading manual wheelchair? Since the two of them had seen a TV program about the journey, and Gray had said, “I’ll push you,” they wanted to prove to the world that the two of them could do it together.

They decided to document the journey, hiring a camera crew to follow the duo. At the time, Skeesuck had no idea that the 2014 trip would produce a documentary, books, and opportunity for speaking engagements in front of thousands.

Yes, Skeesuck lost the use of his hands, but that just meant he had to pivot. And pivot he did.

Turning The Experience into a Business

After returning from Spain, they formed their company, Push Inc. Their film “I’ll Push You” had its theatrical release in 2017 and received numerous independent film festival awards. They also released their book “I’ll Push You” the same year. They began speaking in front of thousands of people, sharing their story of overcoming obstacles. They also started taking groups of other people with disabilities on a stretch of the Camino, guiding them and learning from them along the way.

Everyone has a compelling story to tell, Skeesuck said. And even if it isn’t a story someone wants to tell, then there’s a business they can start.

“If you’re looking to start a business and you are disabled, number one, don’t let that stop you at all,” he said. “You’re making an excuse for yourself.”

It won’t be easy, but it’s possible, Justin insists. None of the success they’ve had 10 years since their Camino journey has come without hard work.

“I think in this day and age, a lot of people think that, oh, it just happens. All of a sudden, you’re just speaking in front of thousands of people,” Justin said. “No, it’s a lot of muscle work. It’s a lot of just grinding it out. It’s a lot of networking. It’s a lot of phone calls. It’s a lot of, leaning on each other for our skills and our talents to build something.”

Not All Good Ideas Work

Not everything has worked out perfectly either. Some ideas they’ve had to shoot down. Not because they’ve been bad ideas, but because there were challenges scaling them up. For a while, Skeesuck and Gray had a virtual paid monthly meet-up called “The Pushed Life,” but it wasn’t a sustainable business model. They also created a high school program called The Push Project, but because of low public education budgets, it wasn’t possible for many schools to participate.

Gray and Skeesuck often meet to discuss which programs are working and which ones aren’t. One that has been working is bringing other wheelchair users and volunteer pushers along a stretch of the Camino de Santiago. They kept hearing from people they knew who were interested in taking such a trip, so they started taking groups in 2019. This June, they will have taken five groups on this journey. In some cases, Skeesuck advises, you just need to listen and that will lead you to the place you are supposed to be.

Patrick Gray and Justin Skeesuck after one of their Accessible Camino journeys.

A Team Effort

Like the 500-mile journey across the Camino, the success of Push Inc is a team effort. Gray and Skeesuck know each other’s weaknesses and fill in where the other can’t.

“Overarching the whole thing is just utilizing where our strengths were. That’s the most important key that I could give,” Skeesuck said. “Sometimes you underestimate what that power is, and you don’t realize that people can build a business out of something from literally nothing.”

With his new career in public speaking, Skeesuck has had to become more open about his disabilities and the challenges in his daily life, including having people feed him, dress him, and shower him. While it was uncomfortable at first, he’s gotten used to it, and realized that it just isn’t simply about feeling bad for his own situation. There’s a broader purpose at hand.

“You need people to help get you through it,” Skeesuck said. “And that’s where the transition into our journey really is a great metaphor, because it shows in real time that this is what we’re capable of as humans.”

Watch Justin and Patrick’s Keynote from CureDuchenne FUTURES 2023 here.

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