Fifth-grader Michael Consenza doesn’t speak, but using a communication device called a DynaVox he was able to deliver a message to J.R. Martinez on Wednesday morning when the “Dancing With the Stars” champion visited the Henry Viscardi School in Albertson.
“I like you, J.R.,” Michael told the actor and Iraq war veteran through the automated voice generated by the machine after the 12-year-old Brooklyn boy typed out the message using a tablet.
“I like you, too,” Martinez, 30, said as he leaned over Michael’s wheelchair and hugged the boy.
The former “All My Children” soap star, who won the "DWTS" season 13 mirror ball trophy, spent more than two hours visiting with students at Viscardi, which services nearly 200 students from pre-K to grade 12 who have severe physical disabilities.
He joked with students, answered their questions, posed for photos -- including several selfies -- and purchased a candy bar from one 12th-grader who was raising funds for his senior class trip to Washington, D.C. Martinez even let one fourth-grader run his hand across his scarred face when the curious child questioned what had happened to him.
In 2003, while serving in Iraq, Martinez, then 19, suffered burns over 34 percent of his body when the Humvee he was driving ran over an improvised explosive device. He spoke of how he was trapped inside the burning vehicle for five minutes.
He also sustained internal damage from smoke inhalation, broken ribs and a lacerated liver, and when he woke up from a medically induced coma three weeks later in a Texas hospital, he said he could no longer walk, feed himself or even sit up in his bed. He was completely dependent on a nurse, and the word “disability” hung on a sign above his bed, he said.
“I don’t like that word,” Martinez told the entire Viscardi student body, most of whom were seated in wheelchairs, in the school’s auditorium for the assembly. “It’s not a word I keep in my vocabulary.”
After years of treatments, 34 surgeries and rehabilitation, Martinez said he not only regained his abilities, but learned “there is no such thing as a disability.”
He told the students that although they may do things differently than other people, “you have nothing but ability.”
The message resonated with ninth-grader Isaiah Cudjoe, who said he was inspired by the fact that Martinez always kept pushing himself.
“I can accomplish anything,” said Isaiah, 15, of Brooklyn, who would like to attend college and one day become a basketball coach.
The students weren’t the only ones inspired by Martinez’s visit, though.
“These kids are finding ways to persevere, survive, communicate, to live,” Martinez said. “They remind you of what’s really important in life … I’m leaving here a better person.”