Joey Dickinson is Living His Best Life Despite Physical Limitations
Photographer / Amy Payne
Additional Photography Provided
In many ways, 17-year-old Joey Dickinson is like any other teenager. He loves card games, sports, Dungeons & Dragons, and spending a lot of time with his good friends. He gets straight As and loves being involved with extracurricular activities.
In one major way, he’s different. Dickinson was born with a rare birth defect that rendered him with undeveloped muscles, and some missing altogether. This has never held him back – in fact, he didn’t consider until fairly recently that he was different from his classmates at Plainfield High School. This is evidence that his joy, optimism and zest for life have buoyed him above his struggles over the years.
“I honestly had not really noticed until recently that my life is different from others,” Dickinson says. “Growing up I always thought, ‘I can do this,’ and, ‘I can do that. I’m not different at all.’ But lately I’m like, ‘I am actually very different. I cannot go up the stairs.’”
Dickinson was born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, a condition that consists of multiple joint contractures or joint stiffness.
“I am lacking in some muscles and tendons,” Dickinson says. “My joints are out of place and stiff. Some move and some don’t. It’s really affected my biceps and triceps, and everything below the waist.”
While the condition was not discovered until Dickinson was born, his mother Melissa knew during pregnancy that something wasn’t right.
“It got missed on the ultrasound, but I knew deep down something was wrong, and when he was born it was very obvious,” Melissa says.
Dickinson was born with his legs crossed and flipped behind his back, stuck in place. He has endured multiple surgeries over the years. From the time he was a newborn until he was 2, he had casts on his legs, had them removed for a time, and then had to wear them again after each of his seven surgeries. His last surgery was four years ago at the age of 13, and unfortunately, it was not successful in providing him the progress toward walking that he anticipated.
“They put me under, and then put metal rods through my legs, connected to my bones, and I had pins going into my feet,” Dickinson says, describing his most recent surgery. “Every night, the idea was to twist the pins to shift the bones slowly over time, causing my legs to correct into the right shape for walking.”
Dickinson’s legs and feet curve slightly, not straightening all the way. This keeps him from walking, and he uses a wheelchair to get around.
Sharing his story, Dickinson’s voice hardly has a trace of sadness. He embraces the self-awareness that comes with becoming a young adult, and says the realization of his differences has made him want to prove himself.
“I want to prove to others and myself I can do this on my own,” Dickinson says. “I want to know that I can do things normal people do on a regular basis, like work, clean, cook – all the basics.”
Dickinson’s wide range of hobbies led him down the path of learning independence. He and his mom were in downtown Plainfield one day, and they spotted Toy Buzz & Fizz, a local toy shop that had recently opened. Dickinson’s affinity for Yu-Gi-Oh! cards is what drew him in, and when he checked the store out later with his dad, he knew it was a place where he not only wanted to hang out, but also where he wanted to work.
“There are toys from wall to wall, and there was a couch where you could just chill and watch Netflix,” Dickinson says. “There were video games, old toys, new toys, the whole shebang – anything I could ever want. Immediately, I wanted this type of place to be my first job experience.”
Dickinson inquired about the job right away. Owner Bob Taylor appreciated Dickinson’s confidence and respect. “He really is beyond his years,” Taylor says. “He’s a good kid. I love that he is 16 years old asking me for a job. In fact, he has extra reasons not to. He doesn’t take advantage of his disability. He works hard.”
Dickinson had taken it upon himself to visit the shop multiple times before asking for a job, building a relationship with Taylor and making a good impression. He and his cousin loved going to the store for game tournaments together.
Another reason the store works well for Dickinson is because he can get there on his own in his wheelchair on Plainfield’s paved trails. This was a necessity, as his mom works full time and can’t always take him to work.
Dickinson’s sense of play makes transportation to work that much more fun. When asked how long it takes him to wheel to work, he has an answer, because of course he’s clocked it. “At max speed, my chair goes 6.4 miles an hour,” Dickinson says. “On a nice day, I can be there in 20 minutes. Never slow down. Never surrender.”
Melissa praises the Town of Plainfield for being a place Dickinson can live as normally as possible.
“The trail system and the curbside work were phenomenal,” Melissa says. “These things have benefited Joey and all people in wheelchairs. He’s able to get to a lot of places.”
Dickinson has also been very involved with the Optimist Miracle Movers, which originated in Plainfield. This program allows those with disabilities the opportunity to participate in organized sports. Dickinson has loved competing in swimming, softball and soccer.
While he loves being involved in sports and extracurricular activities, the last year has kept Dickinson from being as involved as usual, between his job and shutdowns due to COVID. However, he’s embraced his work schedule and the extra time to work on his other “nerd hobbies,” as he calls them, like miniature painting and model kits.
Dickinson has also been branching out lately into taking business classes, his practicality ranging beyond his years.
“No matter what I do, I want to have a backup,” Dickinson says. “Business management and marketing are always sought after. I can apply those principles to my life, whether in normal day-to-day living or in my jobs.”
Melissa says she and her son are very similar. They both have analytical minds, and they view the world in a fairly straightforward manner. While it was tough to tackle the diagnosis, Melissa is the first to say her son has brightened her life with his humor and positivity.
“I’ve learned to be optimistic and approach everything with humor,” Melissa says. “That was not who I was before Joey came along.”
As she struggled to come to terms with Dickinson’s disability in the early years, she sought a support group to help her navigate her feelings. Over time, however, she became disenchanted with how negative the group was, and how they approached disability as if it was the end of the world. Watching her son had shown her that his disability was anything but the end of the world.
“The world can only end so many times,” Melissa says, referencing Y2K, COVID and other history-making events.
Even Dickinson himself has encountered other young people who blame many of their problems on their disability.
“They talk a lot about how friends leave because of their disability, or stab them in the back because of it,” Dickinson says. “I just think, ‘You’re in high school. I’m pretty sure this is just what happens at this age.’”
He still has compassion, letting them talk and empathizing with their feelings because he knows they are hurting.
In February, Dickinson was named the Values Student of the Month by the Plainfield Community School Corporation. The award goes out each month to students who follow values that are integral to the Town of Plainfield, such as honesty, truth, integrity and justice.
“He takes it all in stride,” Melissa says. “He likes to laugh, and he has this whole other side I don’t have, which is humor. He has taught me to just chill and know it’s going to be OK.”