CP Stories: The “Can Do” John Borland

“You can’t expect a group of people to respect you more than you respect yourself.” — John Borland

Retired health inspector John Borland, 68, has fought stigma and the feeling of being underestimated throughout his life with cerebral palsy. Today he shares how a relentless ‘can-do’ approach to living has helped him meet his full potential. 

John Borland with his family
John Borland with his family

John Borland can clearly remember the first time he realized he was ‘different’ from others. 

“I was about two years old,” he says. “The short story is that I was lying on our living room floor playing with my father. I watched him get up from his stomach on to his knees and then on to his feet. I tried several times to do what my father did – to be like him – but each time I fell over. After several tries, I knew I was not the same as others.”  

Around the same time, John’s parents, Samuel and Patricia, sought a diagnosis, learning that their son likely had spastic cerebral palsy and could be ‘slow to develop’.  Under the care of orthopedic surgeons at Hamot Hospital in Erie, PA, he was able to learn to walk. During a time where there was often the assumption that children with cerebral palsy were ‘mentally retarded’ John was also required to take a cognitive test to attend a mainstream elementary school.  

“It was ingrained in me that I was not the same, not as good as able-bodied people,” he says. “I was largely ignored by the other kids in school, and sometimes I was bullied. I had to fight to break that mold to attend college.” 

 John graduated from Edinboro State College (currently Edinboro University of Pennsylvania) in 1974 with a Bachelor of Science in Biology.   

After initially attending graduate school, John was forced to change routes and began to hunt for permanent employment. He found some temporary work but faced many rejections – some he believes stemmed from fear of his disability.   

It hit him hard but he found solace traveling to Alaska with his friend Skip and his family. During the four-month trip, his friends, as they always did, encouraged him to do everything they did – canoeing, hiking, and cross-country skiing.   

“They never looked at me as disabled,” he says. “It made me realize I didn’t want to be marked as exceptional for being disabled. I want to be marked as exceptional. You can’t expect a group of people to respect you more than you respect yourself.”  

Back home in Clarendon, John met with case worker, determined to fight in his corner and who, after five years, found a position with Pennsylvania State government. Throughout his 33-year career, John remained passionate about his work, among other duties, initially conducting health inspections at restaurants and other public facilities. Later as a program specialist, John worked to implement and facilitate drinking water staff training as well as contributing to state and federal  efforts concerning drinking water regulation and facility improvement. John also played a major part in developing Pennsylvania’s storage tank and biosolids programs and with facilitating municipal management of home wastewater systems.  

In his spare time, John embraced his wanderlust, travelling to a total of 43 states throughout the U.S. where he enjoyed adventures hiking, camping, canoeing, skiing or simply taking in the peace of nature. Sadly, he still suffered moments of doubt, even contemplating suicide, and feared he would not find companionship.  

“As a young adult, I couldn’t find acceptance or someone to want to be with me romantically,” he shares. “This grew to be a major source of darkness and trouble for me.” 

With difficulty, John pushed through his depression and worked hard to gain a promotion, relocating to Harrisburg, PA. It was there he was matched with his future wife, Judy, by a dating agency. 

“I forced myself to call her and begin a conversation,” he recalls. “I had to tell her that I was disabled and I figured when I did the call would be over. To my great surprise (as this had never ever happened to me before), she said, “I don’t care. When do you want to get together?” 

The couple became engaged and married in 1990. They have two children, Judy’s son Troy from her previous marriage and Joshua, who was born in 1992. Since then, the family has been blessed with two grandchildren.  

As a passionate contributor to the CP Research Network community, John now wishes to help young people with cerebral palsy to have the confidence to achieve their hopes and dreams. 

He adds: “We need to open the eyes of a great many people so they can see who a disabled individual can truly be and what they can achieve.”