‘The message is bigger than the music’: Armless guitarist inspiring others to push beyond disability

Richmond musician George Dennehy to perform at Virginia Ability Forum Oct. 6
There are musicians -- and then there are people like George Dennehy .
Published: Oct. 5, 2022 at 6:06 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - As a professional musician George Dennehy says he is lucky to do what he loves despite a physical disability expected to hold him back in life.

“When I’m playing a song or singing for people, you connect with your audience. It’s new every time,” Dennehy said.

The 28-year-old says he was born in Romania without arms and was put up for adoption soon after.

“I was malnourished, not taken care of, and really kind of abandoned,” Dennehy said.

Fortunately, Dennehy’s adoptive parents gave him a second shot at life in the U.S., ensuring that even without his arms, Dennehy could think on his feet.

“My natural thought was that I couldn’t do things, but they were always encouraging me to be independent,” Dennehy said. “You may not have arms, but God gave you two feet so use them.”

From a young age, Dennehy says, his parents ensured he could use his feet for just about everything from cooking to even driving a vehicle without special modifications. So when Dennehy’s older siblings were in middle school and learning to play music, his parents ensured he had the same opportunities.

“They knew a lady at my church who taught private music lessons, and my parents said, ‘Oh, George is musical so let’s sign George up too,’” Dennehy said. “My parents just kind of always did that. It was kind of just why not?”

Dennehy’s first foray into music was learning to play the cello. He says his instructor taught herself the basics of learning how to play with her feet to show Dennehy that it was possible.

“The cello was on the floor, and she would hold my feet down and tell me [to] learn to move each toe by itself, and that’s what I did. I eventually got to the point where I could move each toe by itself,” Dennehy said.

But when Dennehy entered the 7th grade, he pursued the instrument every young teenager wants to learn: the guitar.

“I wanted to be cool,” the musician said. “I taught myself guitar because, you know, I thought girls liked guys who could play the guitar, and I just wanted friends. I wanted to fit in, so I taught myself this instrument.”

But George’s gifts captured more than the attention of girls. It gave him the pathway to his full-time professional music career.

“It was the Strawberry Fair here in Ashland, and a video of me went viral.”

The video was of Dennehy performing the Rock band the Goo Goo Dolls hit “Iris,” which eventually caught the band’s attention.

“I ended up playing with the Goo Goo Dolls at a concert in Pennsylvania because they saw my performance here at the Strawberry Fair,” Dennehy said. “It kind of launched me.”

When Dennehy graduated high school, he had garnered enough attention and acclaim to travel around the country as a singer-songwriter, performing famous rock classics and introducing several of his original songs. But he says he isn’t in it for fame these days. Dennehy says he has a different mission in mind.

“I’ve really become more of a speaker,“ Dennehy said. “The message is bigger than the music.”

For the past several years, George has been traveling the country advocating for those with disabilities. His next stop is a benefit concert on Oct. 6 for the Virginia Ability Forum.

Virginia Ability is an organization focused on building inclusive communities and cultures through disability diversity in the workplace by providing solutions to help businesses build distinctively inclusive cultures that are accessible for all employees.

“They do so much for the disability community, and one of the things they do is help people with disabilities find employment,” Dennehy said.

Dennehy says he wants to ensure businesses recognize those overcoming life’s challenges.

“I want companies and corporations to really just be challenged; be challenged to not hold back when it comes to hiring people with disabilities,” Dennehy said. “Everyone deserves a shot. You’re really walking alongside them when you hire someone with disabilities, and you realize they are just as gifted, talented and can contribute just as much.”

Dennehy hopes that by showcasing his unique talents through the Ability Forum, other people living with disabilities too can realize their potential and, like Dennehy, have a world of opportunities at their feet.

“When we can find passion, when we can find belonging, when we can find purpose, we can find hope, and hope makes all the difference,” Dennehy said.

The Virginia Ability Forum is Thursday, Oct. 6, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Cultural Arts Center in Glen Allen.

For more information about the event and how to register, click here.