For nearly 30 years, Michael Kutcher (twin brother to superstar Ashton Kutcher) divulged to very few people that he’s struggled since birth with cerebral palsy. According to Reaching for the Stars: a Foundation of Hope for Children with Cerebral Palsy, an estimated 17,000,000 people worldwide and over 800,000 children and adults in the U.S. suffer from this disease.
People with severe forms of cerebral palsy may be unable to walk or speak. Michael’s case is mild. He has limited mobility in his right arm and hand, slightly slurred speech, and must wear glasses and a hearing aid. Still, societal views towards disabled people concerned him.
“I had a disability,” he said, “and I thought to myself, ‘What are my friends going to think? How’s the dating scene going to be?’ ”
Encouraged by his parents to work hard, Michael didn’t use his disability as an excuse to not exert himself. Ashton inspired him to take risks and persevere.
“I really looked up to him,” Michael said. “Being a twin, every time he achieved something, I was next in line because I wanted to achieve something, too.”
For a while the family feared Michael’s achievements would be cut short. When the twins were 13 years old, Michael’s heart failed. Without a heart transplant, doctors gave him 48 hours to live. With a pump keeping Michael alive, Ashton asked if his heart would be a match; his father quickly put a stop to that line of thinking. Just in time, a donor heart did become available.
“I’ve seen death. I’ve knocked on death’s doorstep,” Michael said. “We all need to take time and embrace life itself and really value what we do have versus what we want or where we want to be.”
At the time of his heart transplant, doctors estimated Michael might live four more years. Now, 24 years later, that heart’s still serving its purpose. At age 37, Michael is serving his purpose as well. Seven years ago, when he met Bella, a little girl whose severe form of cerebral palsy prevents her from speaking, Michael experienced a sudden change of heart.
“I can’t imagine never being able to tell my son or my parents verbally that I love them,” Michael confided. “So it really struck me, and I said to myself, ‘You can’t be hiding behind your disability anymore.’ Given my exposure, with my brother, what a great platform—I could assist people,” he realized.
Today, Michael advocates for funding research to prevent or cure cerebral palsy, help for the hearing impaired, and improved efficiency and education for organ donation. One group he’s partnered with is Organize. Its goal? Reduce the number of people in the United States waiting for donated organs from the current total (about 120,000) down to zero.
“I’ve really been blessed to be given the second chance and the opportunity to do a lot of things,” Michael said. “Twenty-four years—that’s a lot! It’s a lot of time and a lot of things that I’ve accomplished, one of the greatest being having my son.”
Together with Ashton, Michael graduated from Clear Creek Amana High School. He earned a Bachelor of Science from Mount Mercy University, majoring in Business Management and Finance. Employed by Transamerica Retirement Services, he’s also become a popular inspirational speaker.
Mount Mercy University tagged him as commencement speaker in 2014. “Being given that chance to walk down the center aisle, to have the ceremony, to wear the gown—it was special,” Michael said, who says he didn’t participate in his own graduation exercises back in 2002.
“I really reflected back on my accomplishments through college,” he said. “Who would’ve thought that I’d be giving the commencement speech?”
Michael spoke at the Starkey Hearing Foundation’s 2013 gala in St. Paul, Minnesota, an event that raised more than $8 million to supply over 100,000 hearing aids annually around the world. Michael captivated the crowd of over 1,600 people with an emotional introduction of Ashton, who was being honored for co-founding Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children, a nonprofit created to disrupt predatory behavior towards young people.
“That was the first time that he ever heard how I felt about him and his impact on me. It meant a lot for me. It meant a lot for him,” Michael said. “We throw that ‘hero’ word back and forth a lot. We learn from each other’s successes, each other’s failures. We grow as individuals. There’s definitely a unique bond between us.”
On Friday, March 20, Michael will present a keynote speech, “Born to Live,” at Indian Hills Community College’s 11th Annual Diversity Conference, which will be held on the main campus in Ottumwa. Kevin L. Brown, author of Chasing Crows: A True Detroit Success Story, will also deliver a keynote speech.
“I’m looking forward to the conference and all it has to offer,” Michael said. “I’m honored to be selected as a speaker for it and tell my story.”
Improving societal views towards people with disabilities is one of many positive results Michael experienced after divulging he suffered from a mild form of cerebral palsy.
“In admitting that, I’m able to be a little more comfortable in my skin,” he said.
“My parents raised us to be accepting of all, and that’s how I raised my son,” Michael said. “It’s one of those core values that if we take on responsibility to instill that into our young people, we’re making the future a little bit brighter.”
© 2015 Cheryl Fusco Johnson. Cheryl hosts a talk show, The Studio, on KRUU-LP 100.1 FM.