The most noticeable thing about George Dennehy is what’s missing. People often stop and stare. Sometimes they whisper. They all wonder: What happened to him?
“I just tell them I was born this way,” the armless musician told McNamara Headquarter Complex employees during a National Disability Employment Awareness Month observance Oct. 17.
When others ask Dennehy what it’s like to live with a disability, he tells them he doesn’t know. He learned to get dressed, brush his teeth, eat and drive using what he did have: feet. His parents’ belief in him empowered him to face challenges with a positive and eager spirit. By the time he was 8, he could play cello. Today, he sings and plays the guitar, inspiring others to believe anything is possible.
“You can see my disability, but the truth is I do everything that everybody else does; I just do it differently,” he said.
Dennehy was born in Romania to a poor family living in a tiny one-room house. Unable to care for him, his birth parents left him in a crowded orphanage where babies were kept three to a crib. The nurses were spooked by the boy’s deformity. He was cast off, deprived of love and nourishment.
“They believed that someone like me, someone who isn’t perfect, is cursed. And they believed that I had evil spirits living inside me, so they wrote me off,” he said.
On the other side of the world, an American couple was considering adoption. They had three children of their own, but felt what Dennehy described as a “call to do more, to be more.” The yearning led them to a Bethany Christian Services adoption newsletter where they saw a black and white picture of a baby with no arms, crying. “Baby boy desperately needs a loving home,” the caption read. It was accompanied by a birthdate and an expected death date since doctors didn’t believe he would live.
Dennehy was 2 years old but only 9 pounds when his parents-to-be held him for the first time.
“I wasn’t able to hold my head up, and I was pale and sick. I really was on the brink of death because I was unwanted. Nobody believed in me. Nobody loved me,” he said.
Where Romanian nurses and doctors saw ugliness and death, the Dennehys saw beauty and life. They took him home and nurtured him tenderly. But he wasn’t coddled. As he grew up, they encouraged him to do things for himself. If he was thirsty or wanted a snack, his mom pushed him to get his own drink or sandwich. Though it was easy to say, “I can’t” or "It’s too hard,” Dennehy’s parents insisted he try.
“If they’d done everything for me, there’s no way I’d be 24 years old now and a single dad to a 4-year-old, living by myself and maintaining a household by myself,” he said. “They were establishing in me a character of independence and perseverance.”
Dennehy’s journey to adulthood was wrought with self-discovery. While he felt accepted by his family, at school he was ridiculed. Other students pointed at him and giggled. At lunch, they’d say, ‘Eew, get your feet off the table’ when he was eating. His dreams for the future were replaced with anger and depression.
“It was during this time when my idea of feeling empowered and feeling able… it all just went out the window,” he said.
Disability began to define Dennehy, darkening his self-worth. As many would, he allowed his circumstances to get in his way until he gradually realized that all people are shaped by a disability of some sort. Not all of them are physical.
“Me not having arms, that’s the least disabled thing about me. That’s just something I was born with. My biggest disability is the struggle inside, my own image of the way I want people to see me, of how I want to be viewed and liked and the things I want to achieve,” he said.
It’s easy to put up a barrier when seeing someone who is visibly different, he continued, but it’s far wiser to look in the mirror.
“Take a look at your own life. What are the things that you deal with that could be hindrances to you achieving your full ability? It’s easy to look at each other and see how we’re different and let that be a barrier. But focus on how we’re similar,” he added.
Dennehy lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is a motivational speaker. He gained worldwide attention in 2012 when he posted a video on YouTube of himself singing and playing the Goo Goo Dolls’ song “Iris” on his guitar. After the video went viral, the band invited Dennehy to join them on stage at Musikfest, a 10-day music festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He has since released a CD of original music titled “Have My Heart.”