Designer Justin Skeesuck forges a new path—500 miles in a wheelchair

This year the AIGA San Diego Y Design Conference celebrated its twentieth anniversary. The regional conference is a favorite event for speakers because it’s big on heart, and this year was no exception. Among the many varied speakers and presentations, one individual story—an amazing tale of bravery, friendship, and hope—left a lasting impression that few attendees will soon forget.

AIGA San Diego president David Conover explains: “Of all the compelling speakers at our 20th Annual Y Design Conference, one in particular captured everyone’s attention,” he says. “Justin Skeesuck—designer, motivational speaker, and seasoned traveler—and best friend Patrick Gray completed the five hundred-mile ‘Way of St James’ journey in northern Spain. By definition an amazing accomplishment, but considering Justin requires a wheelchair for mobility makes the feat even more astounding.”

“There wasn’t an attendee I spoke to who wasn’t emboldened by Justin’s courageous determination and unremitting perseverance as he chronicled his astonishing passage of physical, emotional, and spiritual toil.”
– Dave Conover

A designer for twenty years, Justin attended San Diego’s Point Loma Nazarene University before launching a successful career working with Fortune 500 companies. Gradually, his career declined as an autoimmune disease triggered by a car accident progressed over the years, causing Justin to lose the use of his legs and, more recently, his arms. When he was no longer able to work as a graphic designer, he left San Diego and moved back to his hometown in Idaho with his wife and three kids.

“After I lost about sixty percent strength in my arms, I arrived at a very scary place—a dark hole. I’m usually a pretty upbeat person. But I came to a crossroads: do I go down this dark hole or do I move forward? I said to myself, ‘This is going to suck, but I’m going to make the best of this.'”

Fast forward a couple of years. When Justin asked his best friend Patrick Gray to join him on the five hundred-mile El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James)through the Pyrenees Mountains and the arid deserts of northern Spain, Patrick answered the only way he knew how.

I’ll push you,” Patrick said.

Thus began a journey that would require far more than either of them could have imagined.

Lessons From the Road

Once they were on the Camino, Justin and Patrick quickly learned that they had to ask for help. Justin recalls, “I think it was an especially important lesson for Patrick. He thought he was going to push me the whole way, and it became apparent on the first day he wouldn’t be able to.”

Justin also had to learn to let go. “We’re raised to be independent in this culture. It’s just a fact now, I need other people to do just about anything.”

“We realized this was going to take more than the two of us,” he continues. “I had to be okay with being vulnerable and allowing people to help me. We all need help with something—whether it’s climbing a mountain, or in your career, your personal life, or marriage.  When you allow somebody to help you they find great joy in that.”

Justin being pulled through a creek bed in his custom wheelchair Justin posing with a group of travelers at a beautiful viewpoint in the mountains Justin being pulled uphill in his custom wheelchair

Forging a New Path

Although Justin has spoken around the country and appeared on both the Meredith Vieira Show and the stage of TEDx, coming home to San Diego was extra special for him.

“It was really cool,” he says. “I wasn’t nervous being in front of my peers, it was exciting. In the past my disability hasn’t been at the forefront, and now it is as I am talking about my life and my experiences.”

Ron Miriello, a pillar in the San Diego design community who hired Justin as a young designer, knows Justin well, and has followed his story closely. “I find it fascinating—how do we define what it means to be a designer? Design is much more than a professional set of skills it takes to get a job,” says Ron. “It’s a point of view and perspective.”

“In Justin’s case I keep going back to the analogy of the game of Pick Up Sticks. You start removing pieces until you are left with the essential elements,” muses Ron. “That’s what happened to Justin. He’s lost use of his feet, then legs, then his arms. But he hasn’t lost his essence of being a designer.”

“I was made to be a designer, I was made to be a creative individual,” says Justin. “With the progression of my disease, especially in my arms, I’ve had to adapt. In the past, I used my creativity to solve problems for clients through design,” he adds. “Now I use my creativity in a new way. It’s the same set of skills, just used in a new way. I had to  adapt and learn to use new tools. I now use voice dictation and even an eyeball tracker to do things.”

Justin has also had to make shifts in how he communicates. By putting his disability at the forefront, he admits, “I have to be more vulnerable and honest about my challenges.”

The Journey Has Just Begun

Justin being pushed in his custom wheelchair

Justin and Patrick want to share their story with as many people as possible, and Justin has already appeared onstage at various universities and events around the country.

They also collaborated with emota, a San Diego-based video agency, to tell their story. emota sent a crew to Spain to film the friends’ journey for a documentary, aptly titled I’ll Push You. After raising funds for the project on Kickstarter, they expect to release the documentary by the end of the year.

Justin continues his consulting work on accessibility issues with his firm, The Disabled Traveler. He and Patrick also speak at events across the country, sharing their message of hope, community, and vulnerability.

Justin sums up the lessons he and Patrick learned along the way: “We proved that even if you have limits in your life, they don’t have to define who you are. Nothing is impossible.”

Find out more about Justin’s story at IllPushYou.com.

Story by Anne McColl

By AIGA
Published May 14, 2015
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