John Thomas was born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita and wasn’t expected to live past two weeks. But now he’s 38 years-old and driving for Uber, the most popular ride-hailing service in the U.S.
“My dad told me on my 31st birthday, that the doctors told him when I was born, that I wouldn’t live past two weeks old due to my condition,” Thomas said. “My condition affects my muscles and the heart is nothing but a muscle. I’ve overcome the odds on that one.”
Arthrogryposis multiplex congenita (AMC), or simply arthrogryposis, describes congenital joint contracture in two or more areas of the body. It derives its name from Greek, literally meaning “curving of joints.”
Thomas’ arthrogryposis is severe as his feet and hands are contracted. He has limited movement in his arms and legs.
Thomas has always been in a wheelchair and is now dependent on a motorized wheelchair, but overcame a lot of obstacles to graduate in 1999 from Broome High School. He went on to earn his Associate Degree in Business in 2005 from Spartanburg Community College.
Despite his success in the classroom, one of the things that he wanted more than anything was to be able to drive. Spartanburg Vocational Rehabilitation started helping him make his dream come true in 2008, as they sent him to Myrtle Beach for driver’s training. He went every other weekend, six times — before getting his license.
In 2009, his special-equipped van was delivered and the part of life that he had never known became a reality. He had the independence and freedom of being able to hit the road whenever he wanted.
“I started crying when I pulled out of the fire department parking lot and started home (after it was delivered),” said Thomas, as tears filled his eyes. “Every teenager wants to drive and I didn’t get to do that. I just feel so blessed now.”
Thomas drives with a digital steering wheel with his right hand and controls the gas and brake with his left hand. He bumps a button, mounted beside the door, with his leg to control the turn signals and headlights.
Thomas began working for Uber in September 2018, mainly on the weekends, and has made 118 trips during those eight months. He mostly stays in Spartanburg, but has had a trip into North Carolina on one occasion.
"I get weird looks all the time when I go to pick people up," said Thomas, as he laughed. "I get asked all the time, ‘Are you sure that you can drive and is this safe?’ But I actually had one man start crying, because he was so impressed with my driving. He told me, ‘if more people like you drove for Uber, I would use them a lot more.’ That made me feel good."
Thomas has been a volunteer firefighter for the Converse Fire Department for 20 years and a substitute teacher for District Three and Seven for 19 years. He also runs JT Computer Service, building and programming computers.
"Even though I can’t physically fight fires, I am there for moral support and with a loving heart, so people can talk to me," Thomas said. "Being a substitute teacher allows me to be able to help children and be a positive role model to show them that they can do things that they say they can’t do."
Thomas is also hoping that he was able to help some children or families at the AMC Adaptations for Life Conference Saturday at the Shriners Hospital in Greenville.
"I’m hoping that maybe I’ll be an inspiration for somebody there Saturday,” Thomas said. "Whether they or in a wheelchair or walking, after seeing my condition, they’ll know that they can drive one day and that there is a future.”