WYOMING, Mich. (WOOD) — With a tape recorder pressed to his ear, Joe DeJong sits at his set inside of the WKTV studios in Wyoming. He’s going over the questions he’ll soon ask his guest on “The Joe Show: Connecting All Abilities.”
“I got the five questions down on my recorder, I’ll go home, and I’ll practice the questions,” DeJong said. “It makes it easier for me to practice these questions and learn those questions, too.”
He admits it’s the hardest part right now of his new podcast. But after the routine prep, DeJong is ready to count the crew down from 10 and start his show. It is not filled with grand music or catchy effects, it’s simple and straight to it. But the journey to get here has been a zig-zagged road. DeJong is completely blind and before he started working with his community living support partner, Mindy Walker, he also couldn’t see the possibilities life afforded him.
“Learning how to advocate for himself, learning how to think outside of his own self-interest, learning how to navigate in a world that isn’t necessarily open to him,” Walker said about what she’s helped DeJong do over their six-year relationship. “And he has to push some doors open if he wants to get there. And then yes, it does help to have somebody on your side who is willing to have a big mouth and be pushy. And doesn’t take no for an answer.”
Walker is a 72-year-old retired teacher who spent the end of her career at Kent Vocational Options. That’s where she first met DeJong. But when she left teaching and decided to spend time with him one-on-one, she knew the young man in her fine arts class would need to grow to get to where he wanted to be.
“I’ve known him for so long,” Walker said. “Back when he couldn’t see beyond his immediate wants and needs and couldn’t think of anyone other than himself, is a completely different young man that sits with you today who has empathy and can understand some of the pain the world is going through. And those are all things that I’ve delighted in watching him embrace.”
It’s part of what DeJong wanted but never advocated for. Until now.
“Learn how to fold towels and learn how to vacuum or learn how to, you know learn how to wash dishes, learn how to do this, learn how to do that. Well, no, that wasn’t what I want to do,” DeJong said. “I wanted to get into radio and communications, and I wanted to start my own podcast.”
The dream was the start. Voicing it was the push. The work was getting it off the ground. Neither DeJong nor Walker really knew what they were doing.
“In order to do what we’re doing because of his impairment, he has to trust me that I’m not going to walk him into a wall,” Walker said. “I may have, too, ‘cause I quite often don’t pay attention. You know? Whoops, there’s a curb.”
DeJong quickly interrupts Walker’s joke.
“I trust her,” he says.
That is evident as he sits next to his guest and the lights of “The Joe Show” shine bright. He is comfortable, confident, and living his dream. Walker is behind the glass in the control room, asking questions about buttons and recordings she’s quickly learning more about.
As a manager, she means business. DeJong’s podcast only had a few availabilities between March and May. The goal is to connect people of all abilities and raise awareness about DeJong and others in the visually impaired community, while drawing attention to the needs of others in the process.
“We are a society that decides who people are based on their limitations rather than their potential. This experience has taught me that it’s all about potential and not denying it in any way, shape or form,” Walker said. “If you deny potential, you are cutting off who knows what experiences.”
Those are the experiences she’s learning firsthand. The “who is helping who” question is a difficult one for Walker to answer.
“He has taught me so much,” Walker said. “I understand where I’ve taken him and the path that we’ve taken, what I didn’t comprehend was how much he would change who I was and how I perceived. And I worked in this field.”
“He has that kind of heart that the rest of the country could embrace, and he can be an ambassador for folks with disabilities,” she continued.
The show has already had nearly 40 episodes and the plans are to get bigger and bigger as DeJong gets more comfortable. There are raw moments of that as he shifts between his lower-register radio voice and a more conversational tone. For the first time, they both agree he’s seeing his true potential. A gift he wants to share with everyone.
“Everybody’s going to lose their abilities at some point. And everybody has a disability, whether you see it or don’t,” Walker said. “Why not be kind and fun? There you go, that’s how I look at it. Why not be kind of fun?”
“You got to have a sense of humor,” DeJong answers. “I hope my podcast will accomplish a lot more connecting (of) all abilities for all around the globe.”
Giving people a voice, a space to advocate or to be seen, that’s what they hope “The Joe Show: Connecting all abilities” will accomplish.
You can watch “The Joe Show” on Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. and on Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. on WKTV, on the Whole Picture Podcast Facebook page or listen wherever you get your podcasts.