Can I Inspire You? – John Willis


These words articulated my mother’s attitude throughout my formative years. She never allowed me to use my lack of hands or feet as an excise. “Get on with it!”, she would cry.

My parents believed the world would not be adapted for me. So I learned to cope with light switches at inconvenient heights, steps, taps I couldn’t reach, round door knobs, cutlery. It has stood me in good stead.

I dress myself (mostly – when I am not being lazy and there isn’t someone on hand to help); I drive – an adapted car; I type – mostly one touch with my right ‘paw’. I write and occasionally draw with my ‘paws’ holding the pen between them, completely undermining the 1960s special school which I assumed I would need a hook, a tapper and a typewriter to communicate.

Can I Inspire You?

People ask, what is the biggest obstacle? “Me”, I reply. “My assumptions are the biggest limitation”.

For many years I believed I couldn’t drive. This was fostered by my father and reinforced subconsciously by friends studying engineering at Cambridge (I studied law allegedly), for they didn’t find a solution. But Mary, my wonderful specialist Instructor, had no inhibitions, mocked up some adaptions in her car and gave me the confidence to try them out ‘off road’ at the Banstead Driving Centre. “All you need is these adaptions.” Her confidence was contagious: I passed my driving test 6 weeks after receiving a Toyota from the adaptions company!

So I say Believe in Yourself and Assume makes an Ass of U and Me. I assumed I couldn’t drive, and I didn’t believe I could. Thanks to Mary, who had the confidence in me, I then Believed in Myself. I urge you to find people and ways to gain that Belief.

During my 50:50:100 challenge – completing 50 swims of 1,000m in 50 pools in 100 days – I came across a young adult from London whose impairment limited his speech among other things. After my swim he told the Head Teacher, an effort that took 5 minutes, that until that day he hadn’t had the confidence to swim in the deep end of the pool, but (with a fabulous broad smile) he had done so today! He had found his motivation. His teacher realised too that many of his barriers were not due to impairments, but due to the way he thought about them – his assumptions. Please do not allow Assume to make an Ass of U and Me.

Conversley through my professional career – lawyer, charity chief executive, property developer, consultant, NHS chair, and now social entrepreneur – I have had the belief I could learn. Working hard at school and getting sufficient results to get in to Cambridge University, has left me with the confidence that I could always learn.


I was truly impressed when one fellow pupil turned himself from being the worst speller in the school and the butt of jokes and harsh juvenile ribbing, into the best speller, and rightly revered for it. He had to learn most spellings by rote: by sheer hard work.

If we can learn, and I have seen severe;y brain damaged individuals rebuild their thinking and learn, we can teach ourselves to improve and then the limits are what we want them to be.

Recently in completing my JohnsRoad2Rio challenge – participating in all 34 Olympic and Paralympic disciplines – I faced some real mental barriers.

Riding brought back some uncomfortable childhood memories of being lifted and sat in front of my mother on her frisky 16 hand chesnut mare. Not only was it very high (remember I wasn’t even 4 feet tall) and there was nothing to hold on to, but as I was sat on the front of the saddle, on the pommel, I was in agony. So there were demons to overcome. With the assurance of my lovely teacher Mel Tomlinson, I was given the confidence to relax – tension instantly transmits to the horse, so the less that one grips for dear life the better – and it gradually became less terrifying.

Diving was challenging in a very surprising way. There were no physical limitations, no excuses based on having no hands or feet. But I was still scared. It was a double challenge: not only was I scared but I had no excuse for being scared. The fear was all mental. I knew from diving off the side, then from a 1m board and then from a box on top so 1.6m that I could do it, but my brain was still saying it was a bad idea. Again through great coaching – thanks Lottie and Grace – I overcame my fears and dived from 3m in front of the Cambridge Diving Gala.

This emphasised to me quite how much our limitations are of our own making and all in our minds. So please Believe in Yourself and don’t Assume make an Ass of U and Me.


To read more about John Willis and ‘Power2Inspire’ click here.