Ken Harrower is used to standing out.
Not only is the 51-year-old aspiring actor the oldest student at the Toronto Film School, he's also the only one with a severe physical disability.
Harrower was born with a rare disorder that left his joints and limbs twisted and mangled. He relies on a wheelchair, and has limited movement of his arms. At times, he also has trouble with his speech.
Every scene and every line takes extraordinary effort. But for Harrower, performing on-stage marks the fulfillment of a childhood dream; A childhood that could have ended where it started.
"I had to go through a lot of hell," Harrower says.
Harrower was born in 1961, in the small town of Flin Flon, Man.
Soon after, a passerby heard a faint cry coming from a dumpster. Inside he found Harrower, a newborn baby, wrapped in a garbage bag. He rushed the infant to hospital. Doctors said Harrower wouldn't survive past age five.
"The doctors don't know everything," Harrower says. "They don't know the human spirit."
Harrower spent his early years in hospital, barely able to move, battling illness and infections. When he was a teenager, he was moved to a foster home. Harrower says it was like trading one hell for another.
"I wasn't brushing my teeth the way Dad wanted me to, and he got a bit mad," Harrower recalls. "He hit me on the left side of my head. I lost my balance, and fell off of the chair."
A fresh start
The abuse continued until he was 15, when Harrower went to live with the Winklers – A family that, over the years, took in 34 foster children. Everyone was loved, but everyone had to pull their own weight.
"We never gave (Harrower) no easy street," says his foster brother, Rick Winkler.
His foster mother, Rosemary Winkler, says Harrower was required to help with the chores.
"He climbed onto the counter, took all the dishes out, set the table for nine people," she says.
Harrower says the experience changed his life.
"They pushed me to be as independent as I could be," he says.
But that newfound independence didn't last long. Harrower's 18th birthday was one he'd been dreading – now an adult with a disability, the Manitoba government required Harrower move from foster care to an institution.
"It was a place I didn't belong," he says.
He tried several times to run away, and begged his social worker for an apartment of his own.
"She told me: ‘People like you can't make it on your own,'" Harrower says with a wry smile. "Surprise!"
Harrower packed what little he had, and boarded a Greyhound bus heading east. Five days later, he arrived in Ontario, homeless. He refused to return to an institution, and chose instead to stay in a shelter.
Former welfare worker Tom Andrich remembers Harrower barging into his office with an unheard-of request: a disabled person wanted his own apartment.
"The character in that body was much stronger than what the body showed," Andrich recalls.
"He does so much to help himself. He doesn't sit back and say: ‘Help me.’ His wants were ahead of the time. He just needed someone to believe in him."
And more and more, people did believe. In 1983, Harrower had a chance meeting with a local newspaper reporter, who wrote an article on Harrower's story. That prompted donations of money and furniture, including a table and a bed. Eventually, Ken raised enough money for his own electric wheelchair.
"It was so fantastic!" Harrower says.
In 1984, Harrower got his own apartment. Today, he lives independently in downtown Toronto. And he's also landed an acting job in an Ontario public service announcement, which promotes better rights and more independence for people with disabilities.
"It shows to me, proves to me that I have pride in my own abilities in spite of my disabilities," he says.
Harrower will graduate from the Toronto Film School at the end of July. He hopes to pursue a career as an actor.