Actors share tales of overcoming disability with Dundee-Crown students

Katy Sullivan’s legs were taken from her at birth. Jay Cramer lost the use of his in 2005. But the couple haven’t let that or anything else get in their way to becoming peer mentors and successful Hollywood actors.

On Friday the two were at Dundee-Crown High School – where Cramer was captain of the football team in 1993 – to deliver a motivational speech about overcoming obstacles and keeping a positive perspective on life.

Cramer, who was born in West Dundee, got the acting bug when he was at the University of Michigan.

After graduating with a degree in theater and drama performance, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment.

But in 2005, while training for a spot on the reality show “Survivor,” Cramer fell during a rock-climbing exercise. He was diagnosed as a C5 level quadriplegic, and his dream of becoming an actor was in serious doubt.

“Before [the accident], I had gone through Second City. I had an agent. I was doing well,” Cramer said. “Then I got injured, and everything got put on hold.”

During rehab therapy treatments in Los Angeles, Cramer was approached by Sullivan, who was a double bilateral, above-the-knee amputee.

Sullivan was a young actress who spent some time in the Chicago theater scene before moving to L.A.

The two chatted about the Chicago Bears and friends they had in common. In 2009, they were married.

The couple’s acting résumés would be impressive for any budding actor trying to make it in Hollywood.

Cramer was named L.A.’s top newcomer comedian in 2007 and L.A.’s Funniest Comic in 2009. He’s had a commercial with Walmart and was on the ABC show “Desperate Housewives.”

Sullivan has been on “My Name is Earl,” “Last Man Standing” and “Legit” on FX. But one day, when Sullivan decided to take her prosthetic legs out for a run, she discovered an athletic ability she never knew she had.

“When I got to my first track meet, I kind of found out I was fast,” Sullivan said. “I had this natural athletic ability I didn’t know I had. So I was running and running, and thought, ‘Let’s see where this goes.’”

Her athleticism took her all the way to the 2012 London Olympics, where she finished sixth in the Paralympic 100 meters, setting an American record.

“She’s the only one I know who’s ever, for a hobby, made it to the Olympics,” Cramer said.

Cramer and Sullivan have used their experiences to empower others to overcome obstacles in their own lives. They both are peer mentors to people who have experienced a disability and have recently started speaking to students about changing their perspectives on life.

“This is a life curveball that no one could ever possibly be ready for,” Cramer said. “If you just take it one day at a time, if you can wrap your brain around the fact that this has happened, that’s the day you can start to get better.

“All the stuff that used to bug you when you were able-bodied – your toilet’s backed up, you’re stuck in traffic, you lose your keys – all that stuff just goes away. The real stuff in life, the good stuff, matters.”

Sullivan said that rather than dwelling on the negative aspects of her disability, she has turned it into an asset during acting auditions.

“[A disability] can be tough in terms of being an actor,” she said. “But we bring something very different to the table. For me, it’s been in some ways an advantage. Because they’re looking for someone that has something different going on.”

“The disabled and handicapped world is being embraced [in Hollywood],” Cramer said, citing shows such as “Breaking Bad,” “Glee” and “Push Girls” that show disabled actors in a positive light.

Cramer and Sullivan have a remarkable perspective on life, one that is often difficult to find in the vain and superficial world of Hollywood. But the two seem to rise above negative noise, and Cramer said telling his story to his high school alma mater made the experience that much sweeter.

“It’s an out-of-body experience,” he said. “Everybody has the dream of coming back to their old high school so they can just prove to everyone what a god you were when you were here or how cool you are now. And you don’t expect to come back in this capacity. But I am beyond thrilled. If there’s one person that we can touch today, it makes the whole thing worthwhile.”

Loading more

Digital Access

Digital Access
Access nwherald.com from all your digital devices and receive breaking news and updates from around the area.

Home Delivery

Home Delivery
Local news, prep sports, Chicago sports, local and regional entertainment, business, home and lifestyle, food, classified and more! News you use every day! Daily, weekend and Sunday packages.

Text Alerts

Text Alerts
Stay connected to us wherever you are! Get breaking news updates along with other area information sent to you as a text message to your wireless device.

Email Newsletters

Email Newsletters
We'll deliver news & updates to your inbox. Plan your weekend and catch up on the news with our newsletters.