ASHEBORO — Don’t ever tell Ryan Leonard he’s disabled, just because he has no arms.0
“I’m normal,” he says. “I always have been. There are some things I can do that most people can’t.”
Like drive a car with his feet. Or do so many other things that everybody else needs arms and hands to accomplish.
When asked if he accepted the term “disability,” Leonard said, “No, because I don’t think I am. I just want to work and be doing something.”
The 24-year-old Leonard said recently that he was born with no arms for reasons no one knows. So for him, it’s normal.
“I never had arms so it’s the only way I know,” he said. “It never affected me. I was doing things on my own by the time I was 3 years old.”
According to Leonard, having no arms was no problem, socially, when he went to school at Franklinville Elementary, Southeastern Randolph Middle and Eastern Randolph High School. “Nobody made fun of me,” he said.
In fact, Leonard went out for football and wrestling in both middle and high school. In football, he played defense. Asked how he tackled another player without arms, he said, “I’d throw my body at them and take ’em out.”
Wrestling, however, was what Leonard liked more. “I liked it because it was me by myself out there.” He said he was seldom pinned in all his years on wrestling teams.
It wasn’t until Leonard graduated from high school and began looking for a job that he felt prejudice toward his being armless. He said he would apply for a job and never hear back.
“I think it was bias,” he said. “They didn’t know me and what I was capable of. People who doubt me irritate me.”
He did work for a time with a friend in chicken houses and on a horse farm. But then a woman who knew Leonard through his father “invited me for an interview.”
That interview landed him a job as a sales associate at The Shoe Department at Randolph Mall, just before the COVID-19 pandemic. In that position, he said, he mostly talks to customers about shoes.
His employment keeps Leonard in the public eye. “I get a lot of stares all the time,” he said. “I’ve learned to adapt to it. I understand why (people stare).”
It doesn’t help that Leonard is a “loner by nature. It has nothing to do with arms. I don’t like crowds or hanging out with people.” However, he’s quick to point out that he gets along with his co-workers, calling them “pretty cool.”
Despite the stares, despite the perceived biases, Leonard doesn’t yearn to have arms. He even turned down the opportunity to be fitted with artificial arms by the Shriners Hospital when he was 7 or 8 years old.
“I already knew how to do everything,” he said. “I don’t see the point. It’s just another thing to keep up with. I’ve never had arms so it’s the only way I know.”
Leonard took driver’s education with Jack Embree, who knew his parents. Under Embree, Leonard learned to use his right foot on the pedals and his left foot to steer. When he went for his driving test, he said, the officer said it “went how he expected.”
Interestingly, Leonard says he’s left-footed but right-shouldered.
In order to use his feet to do things most everybody else uses their hands for, Leonard must maintain his flexibility. He said he stretches regularly to keep his muscles flexible. How long that will last, he said he doesn’t know.
A couple of armless men have influenced Leonard over the years. One is a Greensboro minister who does a great deal of traveling to deliver sermons. Asked if he would consider giving motivational speeches, Leonard said he’s thought about it but isn’t sure if that’s what he wants to do.
“I can about figure out anything to do. If not, it’s not meant to be.
“I’m still figuring out my life,” he said.
One thing he’s sure about is his family. He and his girlfriend, Tara, have a 2-year-old daughter named Rylinn, who stays with other family members while Tara is at her receptionist job and Leonard is at The Shoe Department.
“She’s my everything,” Leonard said of Rylinn. “She’s awesome. She’s changed me for the better. She teaches me a lot, to be a better person, and motivates me to get things done. She doesn’t see anything different about me.”
There are some everyday devices that use modern technology which could help Leonard. But at least one goes unused by him. “I don’t use voice-activation on my phone,” he said. “I use my feet” to dial or text.
“I can about figure out anything to do,” he said. “If not, it’s not meant to be.
“There no point in wishing I could do things like hug Rylinn,” Leonard continued. “It’s not going to happen. I don’t want to be down on myself. God wouldn’t put something in front of me I can’t handle. That’s the way I look at it.
“I just take everything I gotta do head-on,” he said. “You might as well face it. You can’t let things hold you back. There are always going to be hard times.”
So, what’s Leonard’s outlook on life? “Basically, to be happy with things,” he said. “If you’re not happy, you can’t blame anybody else. You can’t let it overcome you or take over your life.
“Enjoy life while you can,” Leonard added. “I have tried to do what I have to do and take care of what I have to.”