John Floresca has always been his own best advocate.
He’s been an active member of the local 600 Cinematographers’ Union for an impressive 19 years, working on renowned shows such as SNL, Ali Wong Comedy Standup, and The Daily Show.
For the past four years, John has been working in a wheelchair, despite facing a non-inclusive work environment. However, he has successfully navigated this challenge and made it work.
“So, my mentality is a very big alpha go-getter mentality,” says Floresca, as he munches on take-out from his car. “I’m in a self-reliant industry. We go, go, go–always be on top, always be ahead, figure it out, and that’s how we survive in this industry.”
On June 21, 2019, Floresca was in Hawaii on a much-needed vacation with his wife, Tina, who was six months pregnant with their first child.
Floresca had surfed before. “I popped up on the board, and I felt a pull, and it turned out to be my L5 slipping over my S1, pinching my spinal cord nerve,” he explains.
The accident is called surfer’s myelopathy, the hyperextension of the lower back.
Three hours after the initial hyperextension, Floresca’s toes started to flutter and then stopped moving. “I was sweating, but my legs were cold,” he says. “We were in Hawaii, so they held me over there until I could stay in a seat for more than nine hours for the flight home.”
Floresca’s resiliency and self-advocacy had already started kicking in. “I said, ‘I need to go home. Put me in a wheelchair,’” Floresca says.
Give Him Wheels
“And then I was zooming around.” Floresca was already being as independent as possible not a day into his spinal cord injury. And he and Tina were on their way home to Jersey City, NJ.
Floresca didn’t require surgery. He went from Queens Hospital in Hawaii to Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, NJ.
“When I was in the hospital, I read this book about severe trauma,” says Floresca. “And on one page it said, ‘If you accept where you are, accept the injury and the trauma, then you’ll have room to grow.’”
“And so, I accepted where I was at,” relates Floresca. The doctors told him he had a 1% chance of moving anything from his belly button down. “So, they diagnosed me as a T-12 Incomplete ASIA A,” says Floresca.
Capitalize on Hope
We discussed how ASIA A is “the worst.” “I know!” he exclaimed. “But then I thought, ‘You don’t know what’s happening. This is a very rare form of trauma. There’s a gray area. And I have a 1% chance.’”
Floresca grabbed that 1% as his mind control. “It will dictate the way I want to live my life, because you’re telling me, ‘I can’t do this, but you’re not telling me what I can do.’”
Four years Floresca told himself, “I’m unstoppable. You figure out how to stay above water as much as possible and get as much help as possible.”
Floresca put his family in the crosshairs of his initial recovery. “My fight and drive were that I’m not going to be bedridden and watch Tina do all this stuff by herself,” he says.
But like most self-sufficient people, asking for help was a hurdle.
He says the first five months were looking into yourself, knowing that you need to ask for help.
“And then, if you couldn’t welcome that in and work your life,” he says, “then your life wouldn’t change.” He adds that adopting that mindset adds to the fight for independence.
Help for a Purpose
“I will ask for help until I don’t need help anymore, “rationalizes Floresca. “Or I’ll ask for help to figure it out, or to give me time to figure it out.”
“I want to do it because I want to figure it out,” he offers. “I want to know if it’s challenging, and if it is challenging, why don’t I keep doing it until it gets easier?”
So, for Floresca, the first step in being a contributing husband and father was getting back to work: Work he loves.
He’s an accomplished camera operator. He has 19 years of tenure. “I’ve hired, I’ve fired, I’ve mentored,” he offers. “I can view if I get my hand controls.”
He added that he must create this ripple effect in the world to show people that he wants to go back to work, and this is what I need to go back to work, and this is what support I need to go back to work. “And all of it just started to fall in line.”
Colleagues readily offered to pick him up for work. Eventually, Floresca got “street legal” with a car with hand controls. Sets were scouted ahead of production to ensure they could accommodate Floresca’s needs.
When “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah went on location in historic Atlanta, the production crew went as far as to ensure a private, accessible Port-a-Potty with a key was on site for Floresca.
All this work, the collaboration of colleagues, and Floresca’s “Be your Own Best Advocate” inner mantra, one he had before his injury, paid off.
The Daily Shows shot in Atlanta have been submitted for an Emmy, so Floresca is an “Emmy-nominated” camera operator. As far as he can tell, he’s the first wheelchair tech member nominated for an Emmy.
Throughout his career, John has gained valuable Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) experience working on renowned shows such as SNL, Ali Wong comedy standup, and The Daily Show. His dedication and determination have allowed him to effectively collaborate with producers and studios, demonstrating that a person in a wheelchair can contribute to and thrive in an inclusive work environment.
A Start-Up to Help Start Up
“And all this work…to get myself included. It’s crazy,” says Floresca. “I’m starting a DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) company with two other people in the business.”
One of the other principals has muscular dystrophy. He was the DEI for several social media platforms. The other is vision impaired. “He was a consultant for an Apple TV show called “See.” Floresca says, “and now is a co-producer.”
“And then there is me, who’s been in the business for 19 years; four years in a wheelchair, I’m still able to navigate through a non-inclusive environment,” says Floresca.
“If we can show producers and production how to deal with people with different disabilities, it will be helpful,” says Floresca. “We want to try to normalize the un-normal, right?”
Right now, the three men are in the process of getting their business model down.
They will also shoot short, little promo videos. “And we’re going to have fun with it,” says Floresca.
Floresca has also figured out, rather quickly, how to advocate for himself in terms of recreation.
“My goal was to bike in Vermont with Tina,” he says. “Vermont’s beautiful. They have great trails. It’s the fall, and why not enjoy the outdoors.”
So, what stops Floresca? He needs a handcycle.
“I preempt everything,” he says. Instead of sending out one email and waiting, Floresca sends email “blasts,” this time for access to a handcycle.
“Now you’re in this system,” he reasons. “You get your name out into everything; then everybody starts to know you.”
Floresca finally got in touch with the right person, and her first words were, “I was wondering how long it was going to take until I heard from you!”
Floresca emphasizes that he has this biking opportunity, but to get it, he had to advocate for himself. “No one’s going to say, ‘Hey, you want to go kayaking? Here you go. Here’s everything. Have fun.’”
Family Man Above All
Floresca’s greatest accomplishment is his ability to be a present, active husband and father. “I take JJ, now 3 ½, to the park,” he says. The two have so much fun. Floresca looks around and sees other parents disengaged, most of them looking at their phones.
“Tina and JJ were my motivation; my work was my motivation,” says Floresca.
“In my mind, I’m unstoppable,” he says. “I must figure it out. In my mind, I know I can do this.”