When Marc Elliot was a junior in high school, he got kicked off a Greyhound bus for shouting a racial epithet.
Elliot did not blurt out the offensive term intentionally, but that incident may well have changed the course of his life.
Elliot, who has Tourette’s syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes involuntary motor and vocal tics, decided then to strive to educate people about Tourette’s, and the importance of accepting the differences of others.
“I am using my challenges to convey some simple, simple messages about tolerance,” Elliot told the Chronicle. “We often make assumptions about people that don’t always hold true. Live and let live.”
Elliot began developing Tourette’s symptoms at age 9, but had been living with another great challenge since birth. Two days after he was born, he was diagnosed with Hirschsprung’s disease, a rare birth defect that left him with almost no working intestines.
He will bring his story to Pittsburgh Sunday, Oct. 9, speaking to groups at both the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill, and at Chabad of the South Hills. The program, entitled “Get Over It! Everyone is Different,” is sponsored by the Friendship Circle, the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, the Agency for Jewish Learning, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, Jewish Residential Services, and the JCC.
“Growing up was absolutely quite an interesting journey, to say the least,” Elliot said.
Hirschsprung’s disease caused him to be incontinent, necessitating the need for diapers. Tourette’s syndrome began in middle school, causing eye-blinking and sniffing tics.
When it came time for high school, “things started to get a lot more difficult,” he said. That’s when it became apparent that he had coprolalia, the involuntary emission of socially unacceptable or obscene sounds and words. Fewer than 10 percent of people with Tourette’s have coprolalia.
Nonetheless, Elliot did not allow his challenges to stand in the way of, well, anything.
He frequently performed in his school’s plays, and was even cast as the lead for some of then. He played a lot of sports. And he was elected student body president of his high school.
After graduating from high school, Elliot attended Washington University in St. Louis where he took his premed requirements, planning to go to medical school and one day become a surgeon. He had been inspired to study medicine by his own surgeon, Jessie Ternberg, whose dedication and willingness to try some experimental procedures saved Elliot’s life.
He began addressing groups about his challenges during high school, and continued doing so during college. After graduating from college, he decided to take a year off before applying to medical school, and try his hand at speaking full time.
He quickly found that people were anxious to hear what he had to say. “I realized maybe this is how I can really help people,” he said. “I started two and half years ago, and I have had over 200 engagements. I have spoken to over 75,000 people and been to almost 40 states, Canada and Panama. It’s been a wild, wild journey.”
Campus Activities Magazine named him 2011 College Speaker & Diversity Artist of the Year. He is no longer thinking about medical school, believing he may have found his true calling.
His message is simple, based on an adage by Plato.
“ ‘Be kinder than necessary,’ ” Elliot said, paraphrasing the Greek philosopher. “ ‘Everyone is fighting their own battles that you know nothing about.’ ”
Elliot said he has been extremely well received by young audiences, who are engaged by his message of tolerance combined with a lot of humor.
“They see this guy with Tourette’s and liquid poops who is talking about tolerance, and they totally go with it,” he said.
While Elliot recalls that he was the victim of some bullying while growing up, he said that being open about his challenges helped him deal in a productive way with those who did not understand his disorder. Each year, at the start of school, Elliot would stand in front of the class, explaining that he had Tourette’s, and what that meant.
“I was always open about my disorder,” he said. “My parents taught me at a young age what it means to be an advocate for yourself, and I believed that I could do anything. Any time someone made fun of me, I would try to educate them. It was not easy, but I still wanted to do that.”
Elliot’s mission is to inspire tolerance for the differences of others, no matter what those differences are.
“My disorder is visible,” he said, “but not all are visible. In my speech, I explicitly talk about recognizing how little we know of others’ lives, and try to inspire people to just let others live their lives. There are so many differences we cannot see. We just don’t know what makes someone tick.”
Want to go?
What: “Get over it! Everyone is Different.”
When and Where: Sunday, Oct. 9, 5:30 p.m. at the JCC Katz Auditorium, and Sunday, Oct. 9, 11 a.m. at Chabad of the South Hills.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)