“You gotta work on that grip, Brian,” Allen Ray, SimplyHome’s CEO, said on his recent visit to the home of Brian Keefer. This may seem like an odd thing to say to someone who has quadriplegia, but you don’t know Brian Keefer. The 29-year-old Pennsylvanian and star of an episode of TLC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition just laughed in response to Allen’s remark. You might not know that Brian is well-known for his deeply positive outlook and indefatigable dedication to recovering as much mobility as possible after a 2008 gymnastics accident left him paralyzed. A recent highlight of Brian’s recovery was regaining the ability to lift his left hand and to open a door for himself: “It was one of the best things I’ve done in my entire life. A huge stepping stone!”
While encouraged by his progress, Brian has no intention of stopping there: he wants to walk, drive, and work with others who face quadriplegia. Mindful of this, Allen used his recent trip to Pennsylvania to encourage Brian to continue the intensity of his hard work towards recovery. Allen says, “Brian is focused and determined and will not stop there. We know this development is just one step in his longer journey to recovery.”
You may remember that the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition episodes featured renovations of the Keefer family home and technology SimplyHome designed for Brian to give him greater independence. The technology included a tablet that powered environmental controls (home automation), a voice-activated adjustable bed and drink machine, intercoms for communicating throughout the home, adaptive controls for playing video games with his family, and voice-controlled text, before voice-texting was a common feature on cell phones.
SimplyHome asked Brian a few questions about his life after Extreme Makeover, how technology impacts his life today, and where his goals will lead him next!
SH: What’s your life like after the show? Do you get recognized a lot?
Brian: It’s really good. I am really thankful; the show gave me a lot more independence. I can talk to my house, turn on the lights and the music and everything. I definitely get recognized a lot. I travel around South Central Pennsylvania giving speeches, and people recognize me through that, too.
I have had a lot of opportunities. I have gotten to scuba dive in California with my doctors. I have been helping to coach volleyball at my high school. In 2013 I went to Oklahoma for a couple of months and helped coach the men’s and women’s Paralympics volleyball teams. I’m not just staying in my house – I go out and do things, make choices, to have a full life in society.
SH: Tell us about your work as a motivational speaker.
Brian: People have wanted to hear my story ever since I got hurt. I have had people tell me that I have changed their lives completely, helped them through dark times. Every time I do my speech, it’s relatively similar, telling my story. In the Q&A time after my speech, one of the first questions people always ask is, “How are you able to stay so positive?”
SH: How do you answer that? You must have some hard days.
Brian: I have always been a really positive person, I am always having fun and smiling. Because I am such a positive person, I am able to turn a really difficult situation into something better. I also have an enormous support system. I am lucky to have what I have, people praying for me and everything.
Everyone has days where they are dark days or down days, but I’ve always been a firm believer that you make the choice whether to be happy or to be sad. Obviously there are things that will affect that, but you can still choose to pick yourself up and do something. And I have so many people supporting me. If I need to, there is someone I can go to – we can go out, get some food, go see a movie.
SH: What technology does your daily life involve these days? Are you continuing to use the technology from the show, like the voice-activated texting, bed lift, and drink machine?
Brian: I use a mouth stick to text people now, rather than voice-to-text. That way I can text people even when I am in the middle of something, like watching a movie. I have gotten really fast at it now. I use the environmental controls through my voice on my tablet all day, every day. I don’t need the voice-activated adjustable bed as much, because I just keep it elevated. I read a lot of books on my tablet. I’ll read pretty much anything but my favorites are usually sci-fi and fantasy. Two of my favorite series are Harry Potter and Eragon.
SH: What do you think about the Amazon Alexa, the new technology Allen brought on his visit?
Brian: Alexa is great, she has great potential. It would be huge to connect it to Environmental Controls. Another thing she could help with is to talk on the phone or use social media.
SH: We were excited to hear about you regaining the ability to lift your left arm. Tell us about that process.
Brian: I do physical therapy every day, seven days a week. An aide comes in three times a week to help my dad do the exercises that take two people and are more intensive for my core. After the aide leaves, my dad and I can do more machines that don’t require an outside person. A lot of the exercises work on balance.
The change to be able to lift my arm was gradual. I got a flicker in my left bicep when I was first in the hospital, 8 years ago. About a year and a half ago, I was able to start lifting my arm off the armrest. Still working on the hand and fingers. I opened a door at Kennedy Krieger for the first time by myself last year. It was a huge stepping stone!
SH: Tell us about your work on the board of United Central Palsy – Central Pennsylvania.
Brian: I gave a speech for UCP of Central PA a couple of years back and had gotten to know them through that. The president, Jeff Cooper, came out to the house, and I got to know him fairly well. Jeff reached out to me to see if it was something I was interested in doing. I decided to do that to help people across Central PA who have some sort of disability. We have meetings every other week. I give my two cents and help out where I can. I help to make decisions on new programs and how the programs are going, and how to optimize their capabilities for people with disabilities.
SH: Your motivational speaking career is growing a lot. Who is your audience right now? How do you see that continuing to grow in the future?
Brian: I will talk to anybody that wants to listen – businesses, schools, churches, Parkinson’s groups, the nursing school in Lancaster. I’d like to expand my speaking audience to other places, beyond South Central Pennsylvania.
I would love to be able to do something like webinars to share my story – it would be a lot easier than driving all over. To be able to share my story and be able to reach out to people who are going through dark times — that’s what I want to do.
SH: Looking to the future, what are some things that you would like to accomplish?
Brian: Number one, I want to get out of my chair and walk. I am working toward that every day.
I want to learn to use more technology to become more independent. I would LOVE to drive. For the past three years I have been helping to coach my high school volleyball team. It would be awesome to be able to drive to that.
Potentially I would like to work with more spinal cord injury patients, when I make more of a recovery myself. Who better to work with them than me? I know what they are going through. [Brian’s college degree is in recreational management with a focus on therapy.]
SH: As you continue your recovery, what inspires you?
Brian: Probably what inspires me the most is the response I get from other people, telling me that I have helped them. I’ve always wanted to help people, and being told that I inspired them is really big. My family and friends inspire me because they are so supportive and with me on every step of this journey, pushing with me. And I have heard from people all over the world – the show aired in 139 different countries and people will reach out to say that I touched their lives and have been an inspiration to them.
Brian Keefer can be contacted regarding his motivational speaking through his website, www.briankeefer.org.
Watch the original episodes from Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Season 9: Episode 6 and Episode 7.