Motivational speaker talks overcoming disabilities in 'Four Days with Kenny Tedford'

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Nov 22, 2019 at 2:04 PM

For the past 25 years, East Tennessee State University alumnus and Erwin resident Kenny Tedford Jr. has toured the world as a motivational speaker talking about his struggles in life and how he’s worked to overcome them.

Often mocked by classmates growing up, Tedford was born with brain damage that left him with the intellectual ability of a fourth-grader. The damage also left him deaf, legally blind in one eye and with partial paralysis.

With the help of co-author Paul Smith, Tedford recently embarked on his latest book, “Four Days With Kenny Tedford: Life Through the Eyes of a Child Trapped in a Partially Blind and Deaf Man’s Body.” The book, which will be released Nov. 26, discusses what it’s like to live with disabilities and explores Tedford’s experiences with trauma.

“I have spoken all around the United States, Canada and Norway. My audience varies, from preschoolers to senior citizens as old as 99 years. I have spoken to high school-age groups, college students, the Veterans Administration, churches and major state and international conventions of different occupations, such as interpreters, teachers, airlines, educators, etc. This experience has led me to write this book,” Tedford, who has had to work to overcome difficulties speaking, wrote in an email to the Press.

Tedford — who has worked as a counselor and former executive director of the Tennessee Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing — recently reached out to the Press to tell us more about his book and himself, starting with some fast facts.

Tedford Briefly: 

Hobbies: Hiking, horseback riding and kickboxing.

Favorite musicians: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Susan Boyle

Favorite food: Mexican food 

Dogs or cats: “Definitely dogs. Yellow Labs!” 

Ideal vacation: “Being in a log cabin in the mountains with my hot tub and a cup of coffee. No one else is around, and spending time with God.” 

Can you tell our readers a bit more about your book?

My book is a collection of personal stories from my life. In it, I tell about my experiences with trauma and the loss of my family. The stories touch on how I overcame a broken neck, open-heart surgery, stroke, cancer, learning disabilities, and with the physical disability of deafness and depression. Overall, I hope the book will help others to see how they can also overcome any kind of trauma or obstacles. And I want to let them know that a person like me, labeled as “mentally retarded,” grew up to become a motivational speaker, actor, comedian, storyteller, and, now, a professor at East Tennessee State University. And, as a Christian, I give all the credit to God for everything and for who I am today.

What challenges did you experience growing up and how did you overcome them?

In addition to what I explained above, the biggest challenge that I had to overcome, even to this day, is communication with the hearing public. I overcome all challenges by my faith in God, and by living how Mom and Dad taught me, to just be myself, a loving son and loving to others.

What made you decide to write the book?

I have been told for the past 50 years, since high school, that I was a great storyteller, and a very funny comedian, and encouraged to write a book. It wasn't until I was performing my cancer story in Cincinnati, Ohio, at the National Storytelling Conference, when I was approached by a great writer, another motivational speaker, Paul Smith. He was very impressed and moved by my story, and was surprised that I didn't have a book with that story in it. He had already written four well-known books, and he decided to co-write a book with me. I hope that the audiences that I perform in front of will be able to have hope and never to give up, and to learn to love themselves as they are.

Do you think society is becoming more accommodating to people with disabilities?

I think, because of technology, that people are becoming more aware of those with disabilities around them. As for the deaf, I have seen some improvement, but there is still a long way to go. I say that because it is often difficult to get interpreters for hospital and doctor visits, etc. With technology, including video phones, text messaging, etc., we are being brought closer to access to hearing people. I pray that the book "Four Days with Kenny Tedford" will educate everyone, with or without a disability, and bring us together in unity with respect as individuals.

Who is your biggest inspiration in life?

I have two people that are famous who have been my inspirations, and role models, Abraham Lincoln, and Helen Keller.

Abraham Lincoln overcame a great deal of trauma and the death of loved ones in his life. Many people don't know this, but he was also depressed and suicidal. He ran for so many offices and lost, but this did not stop him from running again and becoming one of the greatest (to me) presidents of all. He shows me that one can overcome anything in life if you just persevere and not give up. He, too, had his personal faith in God that helped him. He was a very faithful man.

Helen Keller — watching her life story in movies and reading about it in books, I see that she practically grew up as an animal with no education or any human behavior training. And yet, she became (to me), one of the most amazing motivational speakers I have ever seen, especially for a person who was deaf and blind. She also wrote many books.

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