How Joe Boyd overcame cerebral palsy to pen inspiring book
The committed Christian spent 18 years working as the church correspondent for his local Ballymena newspaper, graduated from the Open University and got married. But, as he tells Stephanie Bell, when he was young he often wished he could trade places with others
For someone who doctors said would never achieve much, esteemed journalist Joe Boyd couldn't have proved medical professionals more wrong. Born with cerebral palsy in the late 1970s, top professionals in the disability field had limited aspirations for his future. But now, through a powerful new book on his life story - 'Trading Places: From Hopelessness to Happiness' - Joe has penned what will be a must-read for anyone living with a disability.
Indeed, it is his hope that his autobiography will inspire others. "I would love it if a kid with a disability or their parents were given new hope for their future as they turn the pages," he says.
Joe's story is certainly inspirational. He knew from a very young age that he wanted to be a journalist - and he succeeded against the odds.
Even more amazingly, though he still relies on a wheelchair to cover long distances and walks with the aid of a frame, he has just qualified as a gym instructor.
At 41 and happily married to Rachael (44), a care support worker, he says life couldn't be better.
He has achieved so much, but it has been a battle to get there and his book charts the heartache of his early years when he was rejected by his peers.
In a searingly honest account of what he went through, he admits: "There were days I would look in the mirror and just wish I could trade places with someone else... someone smarter, someone stronger and someone braver. I wanted to be anyone but me."
Joe is one of the best-known church news correspondents in the province, and his career began in 1997 when he joined the Ballymena Times, remaining there for 18 years.
In 2015, he joined The Church Page, an online Christian news website which publishes news and events from every Christian church in Northern Ireland.
He has also contributed religious content to daily newspapers and has worked as a freelance ghost writer, editor and press agent during a career which has seen him overcome the physical limitations imposed by cerebral palsy.
Born with a condition then known as spastic diplegia, early expectations for Joe's future were bleak. Many professionals of the day, he recalls, suggested that he was 'retarded'.
In Trading Places, he also talks about how a deep Christian faith gave him the strength and ability to overcome this bleak prognosis.
Now living in Ballymena with Rachael, Joe grew up in the nearby village of Kells.
He and his twin brother, Mark, were born prematurely, and during delivery Joe's brain was starved of oxygen for a minute.
His parents, Margaret (62) and Stanley (66) who were in their 20s at the time, realised quite soon that one of their young sons wasn't reaching his milestones.
Joe recalls: "It was earth-shattering for my parents, who were very young.
"Mum kept going to the doctors because I was missing milestones and they kept telling her everything would be fine.
"I was one-and-a-half when a paediatrician dropped the bombshell that I was retarded. At that time, in the 70s, there wasn't the positivity there is now.
"Then at two-and-a-half my parents were told I had cerebral palsy, which was a game-changer because that was a physical disability."
However, fate was to intervene and change his outlook on life. Ethel Kennedy had just helped set up Beechgrove Special School in Ballymena, and to this day Joe credits the support he got there with helping him to go on and achieve his dreams of becoming a journalist.
His talent for writing and his sharp intelligence was evident from a young age, and Beechgrove recognised and encouraged it.
"Beechgrove focused on the things you could do, not on the things you couldn't do, and it was very positive and helped us as children believe that anything was possible,"Joe says.
"From I was five years old, I would sit at a typewriter and write stories. The teachers very quickly recognised I had a gift for journalism and they encouraged me.
"At seven I started to listen to the news and type a resume of the top stories and read it to the class every day.
"Primary school was good, but I did feel my physical limitations. I was the last one picked for team games, not on account of any malice by the other kids, but as a young boy I struggled to walk and kids want to win.
"I walked with a bit of a stagger and used a zimmerframe to get around and a wheelchair for longer distances. That is still the case today."
He had a very different experience when he transferred to a secondary school in Belfast, where he was the victim of physical and emotional bullying.
It was tough few years and Joe, who had grown up in a Christian home and accepted Jesus into his life when he was seven, relied on his faith to get him through. He says: "I stuck out like a sore thumb because I was around all these tough nuts from Belfast. I loved school work and that didn't make me very popular.
"It was fairly bad and I was physically attacked. One boy slapped me across the face and nearly knocked me out. People have this idea that there is no bullying in special schools, but kids are kids everywhere."
Joe left at 17 with four GCSEs and went to the Cedar Foundation, which provides training and support for disabled people in a range of areas, including finding employment.
Wonderful support saw the team at Cedar arrange for Joe to go into his local newspaper, the Ballymena Times, for work experience.
He also started submitting his own stories, which were so well written they were used verbatim.
Joe says: "The editor at the time, Dessie Blackadder, was a great fella and I was giving him stories from my church which he said were very imaginatively written.
"While I was there on work experience, a vacancy opened for a church correspondent. I applied and never left for the next 18 years."
As well as honing his skills as a journalist, he had a thirst for knowledge. He completed an Open University degree in social policy, has a counselling qualification, a diploma in psychology and an advanced diploma in cognitive behavioural therapy.
An active member of Victory Praise Community Church, Joe has been a volunteer in their community outreach programme, working alongside young people in the church gym.
He enjoyed this so much that he has just completed level two and level three diplomas in fitness, qualifying as a gym instructor.
Joe says: "I don't intend to make a career out of it. I did it for the challenge and because I enjoy the volunteering so much. As a freelance journalist, a lot of my work is done at home on a computer, so it is lovely to have something else that gets me out and mixing with people."
His Christian faith is a huge part of his life. His mother was a Christian, and as a boy church played a big part in Joe's life and that of his brother, Mark, and sister Megan (35). He attended Boys' Brigade and Sunday school every week.
He recalls: "I made a profession to God when I was seven. I remember one Sunday school lesson when the teacher said, 'If you want Jesus to be in your life, you just have to ask him to come into your heart and shut the door. That night my brother and I asked Jesus to come into our lives."
As a young man whose disability prevented him from being able to drive, Joe says that he found dating to be a challenge.
He did have a couple of relationships before he met his wife through a mutual friend.
The couple got to know each other initially through messaging each other on Facebook, and when they finally met the connection was instant.
"I was 37 when I met my wife. She wasn't my first girlfriend, but I was looking for 'the one'," Joe says.
"We got talking through Facebook and I asked her out for a coffee. She said she didn't drink tea or coffee and I took that as a bit of a rebuttal, but she was telling the truth.
"Eventually, I overcame my nerves and asked her again. We went for coffee, then lunch and the cinema and the rest is history.
"We married on October 23, 2014, exactly two years after we first kissed. We had gone to see a concert, but we didn't see much of it as we only had eyes for each other."
It was when he was commissioned recently to ghost write a book on a local minister for Timeless Publications that Joe was asked if he would write his own story.
It was something he had never considered before, but he found when he sat down to write it last year that the words flowed out of him.
He is still a little stunned that his life story is now going into print but also delighted to have the chance to share it.
"When they asked me I nearly fell off my seat. I just thought, 'Who would want to hear about me, I've had a pretty boring life?'" he says.
"I sat down at my laptop last October and told them, 'If something comes out, you can have it'. I found once I started writing I couldn't stop and by December I had 47,000 words written.
"The whole process of writing and getting it to print was expected to take 18 months, but here we are having launched it just a few months later."
There is no doubting how grateful he feels for the hand that fate has dealt him.
"Life is incredibly busy," Joe says. "I can honestly say I have everything just as I want it right now. I am ever thankful to God as I believe he has given me this ability, and the book really is the fulfilment of a dream."
Copies of Trading Places are available on Amazon and at www.timeless publications.co.uk.
Also 30% of all proceeds will go to the International Justice Mission, an organisation which seeks to free people who have been trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation throughout the world.
Joe is keen to share his testimony with churches and other Christian groups who would like to hear from him. He can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.