Jeff Ladow's life is as adventurous as they come — he paints for a living, travels to exotic destinations worldwide, and regularly goes camping and skydiving. And he does it all without the use of his arms or legs. Soon after a diving accident rendered him a quadriplegic at age 18, he learned to paint using his mouth and later joined the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (MFPA), an organization providing a way for disabled artists to share their unique work with the world and become financially independent in doing so. Now Ladow spends about six hours a day painting, and he skydives on the side.
Ladow talked with Parent & Child about facing challenges with bravery, and coming out on top. His tip for trying new things: Take the plunge!
Parent & Child: What do you appreciate about life and the people, places, or things around you that others who have full use of their bodies might not notice?
Jeff Ladow: I notice architecture more now. I enjoy painting architecture, so that's part of it, but I've also slowed down enough to notice different old neighborhoods with stone mason architecture from the early 1900's. I take the time to see all of the different shades of color in the trees, flowers, sky, and things around me. It's interesting when you take the time to really see it.
I appreciate people who are considerate and will offer a helping hand. I am very independent, but sometimes it's nice for a perfect stranger to just open a door for me, or simply give me a sip of water.
P&C: How has painting changed your life?
Ladow: I notice a lot more details in my surroundings then the average person, and I am always thinking, "I could paint that." Through MFPA I am able to travel to some beautiful countries and cities around the world. The association has also given me the opportunity to meet others who are in the same situation as me. We are very lucky to be a part of the association. My painting career has helped me become self-sufficient. Just like when anyone wakes up in the morning to go to work or school, I get up and paint. It's my job, and my joy.
P&C: Is there anything you wish you could do but can't without full use of your body?
Ladow: I am a big NASCAR fan. Jeff Gordon is my favorite driver, and I have always wished I could drive a high-speed racecar on a track. I was able to drive before my accident — I drove cars for a car dealership and owned muscle cars. I was also into snowmobiling and motorcycles. Those are the types of things that are difficult to do these days. I say difficult, and not impossible, because I still skydive. I can't physically drive a racecar, but maybe if I'm lucky I will get to go for a spin with Jeff Gordon.
Some would expect me to say I wish I could walk. At this point in my life I am proud of what I can accomplish in my chair. I go hiking, camping, and just about anywhere. It's a good feeling to be able to have a full-time job and be able to do the things I do despite my limitations. Some give up or become bitter or depressed. I say, be independent, and give it your all. It's amazing what you can do if you set your mind to it.
P&C: After your accident and recovery, were you scared to do new things? If so, how did you overcome that fear?
Ladow: It was hard to get around when I first had my accident. I had to live in a nursing home at first, and I was only 18. Now I have my own house, and I get help, but I pretty much make sure everything gets done. You don't have to be stuck in a nursing home just because you are disabled. Fifteen years after my accident I went on a rafting trip down the Colorado River with four other artists. Some thought it couldn't be done, but we did it. It was a great time. Overcoming fears isn't so bad. You just have to face them and keep trying.
P&C: How did you become brave enough to do other new things, like skydiving?
Ladow: The MFPA has given me an independence that has made me feel confident despite any limitations. I have always been brave, and some say daring. My accident didn't stop that. I still enjoy thrilling things. I went riding over rough terrain in a jeep with my brother-in-law in California. I also went flying in a glider sailplane.
I decided to try parachuting when I saw a military documentary on TV where they were doing some tandem jumps. It looked like a dangerous sport, but fun. Unfortunately, on my first jump I learned how to tie my legs up the hard way. My legs hit the ground, and I broke both of my femurs. My doctor said, "I hope you learned your lesson!" I told him I did — I would do it better next time. I learned never to give up, and always to keep on trying.
P&C: What is skydiving like? How is it different for you than it might be for someone with full use of his body?
Ladow: When you're skydiving, you're moving at speeds of 120 plus miles per hour — it's like free floating through the air. I don't feel disabled while I am skydiving. The wind is very strong. It feels like when you stick your hand out the window of a moving car (not that anyone would do that!) but really, it's a fun time. I have to jump a tandem dive, which means I am attached to another person. I also have a trailing chute that slows you down. It happens so fast. It's just a minute of free fall.
P&C: How have bravery and the willingness to try new things affected your life? How do you think it can help parents, children or families?
Ladow: I live almost as if I am not disabled because I have a lot of courage to give things a try. Being brave has given me opportunities to go places that seem like a challenge. I just perceive it differently, and that makes a world of difference. If I were scared to try things, I would not be having so much fun in life. There is so much I can do.
I would encourage parents to allow their children to try to achieve a higher level of education, and also to try doing things that they may fear. Some kids doubt they could ever paint, or swim. If they keep trying they will surprise themselves. In today's world we see a lot of broken families. It is scary at first when children have to deal with a split living situation. Being brave and willing to move on, trying a new way of life, will get you through the transition. Life is full of changes. We need to be willing to cope with each new change and make the most of it.
P&C: Who supported you and inspired you to be as brave and open to new things as you are now?
Ladow: When I was very young, my father built things and took me to air show museums to show me how things were made. He was in the process of building a glider. He inspired me. After my father's death, when I was 11, my neighbor taught me how to custom paint cars. He encouraged me to learn to change a timing chain — he walked me through it, but he made me do the physical work. I liked that because it gave me confidence that I could do things I didn't think I could.
P&C: How do you recommend a parent encourage her child to be brave and/or try new things?
Ladow: Sometimes I see parents doing little things for their children to help them. That's good to a point. If you step back and encourage the children to try, even if they fail, it's better to try. Each time they try they get better and build their confidence and independence. It's just like when you speak for a child instead of waiting for their answer. It limits the child's ambition and creativity if you just take over for them.
P&C: Please share with our readers any further information or stories you think they might enjoy.
Ladow: I enjoy all of my friends. I have a lot of friends in my life. I even have a dog. He is a Yorkshire terrier named Little Bit. He loves to go to Home Depot with me and ride in the cart.
I have a van with an elevator lift. Kids like this. There are two children that live with me, and they like to ride on the back of my chair yelling, "Faster! Faster!"