When I was a student at Indiana University back in the early 80’s I worked with students with disabilities through what was then called Handicapped Student Services. I was awed and amazed by the students’ perseverance, talents, and abilities.  A few years ago I attended a showing of “King Gimp” and had the opportunity to meet Dan, the subject and writer of that 1999 Oscar Award winning documentary.

The movie chronicles the life of Dan Keplinger, an artist who was born with Cerebral Palsy. Covering Dan’s life from about the age of 12 through his college years, the movie shows Dan’s academic challenges, life challenges, his amazing art, and his resiliency. Despite his obstacles, Dan has earned two university degrees, one in mass communications and one in art. In the film, Dan says, “Most people think ‘gimp’ means someone with a lame walk. But ‘gimp’ also means a ‘fighting spirit.'”

After viewing the film, I decided the movie would be an excellent addition to the Student Success curriculum, and this activity has become a universal favorite among students.  Its greatest benefit is inspiring students who are struggling, for whatever reason, to believe they can be successful and to persevere in the face of their personal and academic challenges.

I usually show this movie about half way through the semester, a time when many students are complaining about the work-load, may have received some disappointing grades, and some are questioning if they can make it in college. I use the film to inspire and to educate my students about people living with disabilities as well as provide them with a role model for overcoming whatever adversities they may be facing themselves.

The movie is about 50 minutes long and afterwards I have students write a reaction paper. The directions I give them are as follows:

Please write a full-length paper on your reaction to the film “King Gimp.” I would like a paragraph for each of the following six questions. The more thoughtful your comments, the better the learning experience for you. Dig deep!

1) Think of one or two words that describe what you are feeling and write about it (them).
2) What particular scene or comment stands out in your mind? Why that one?
3) What insights or knowledge did you get from this film?
4) What qualities does Dan possess that you admire and how can you apply that quality to your role as student?
5) How does this film deepen your understanding of prejudice?
6) How did Dan challenge your assumption about people with disabilities?

The universal comment I get from students is, “If Dan can make it through college, I can.”

Other student comments include:

“I have learned that you never know what someone is capable of doing just by looking at them.”
“Just because people have disabilities, it doesn’t make them dumb. I would have looked at him and thought that he couldn’t read a book.”
“Dan is a major inspiration to people who want to succeed and don’t think that they can do it. He shows that it can be done, no matter what ailments you have.”
“The film deepens my understanding of prejudice.”
“Even though he has a disability, he accomplished more in his life than people who aren’t disabled.”
“Now when I see people with disabilities I am going to look at them with a different attitude than before.”
“After the movie I felt ungrateful and ashamed. I know that I take things for granted, but after seeing Dan’s life I realized how many things I should be grateful for.”
“The one thing I feel after watching the movie is hope.”

One day, after I had shown the movie, a student stayed after class to share that she has a learning disability. She told me that she could relate to Dan’s struggles and she had been secretly doubting that she could make it through college. She wanted me to know that the movie had a great impact on her and would have a lasting effect as she continued through her academic program. She said she realized that if she continued to believe in herself, as Dan believes in himself, and not give up when times got tough, then she, too, could succeed.

King Gimp is an HBO documentary; you can view a short preview and order a copy of the film from the University of Maryland School of Medicine Video Press HERE. The cost of the video is $150. If you don’t have the funds, I encourage you to use your library network and see if you can find it there. I encouraged our librarians to purchase it, and they did! Also, Dan has an official site that you can browse at http://www.kinggimp.com/

–Wendy Nathan, Counselor, Mercy College of Northwest Ohio, OH

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