Robinson's high school graduating class had fewer than 50 students. He had help carrying his books, changing clothes and going to the bathroom. John said his high school was a tight-knit community where "everybody liked each other because we were always together."
Two weeks into his freshman year at Syracuse University, Robinson's roommate moved out, saying he was uncomfortable with John's disability. Robinson struggled at first, but eventually found a group of friends who would last a lifetime.
One night his friends decided to play a prank: They duct-taped Robinson's walking cane to his dorm room ceiling.
"Early on, we forgot about his disability and just treated him as one of the guys," said Dave Allen. "We didn't cut him any slack, and that's what he wanted. If we were picking on him like everyone else, it meant that he was accepted."
Toward the end of his college career, John and two of his friends were waiting in line to exit a nightclub when a woman shouted at him, "If you would just get off your knees this line would move a lot faster!"
His friends erupted with laughter.
"Get off your knees" became Robinson's life mantra.
The slogan would also become the title of his autobiography and a 2009 PBS documentary about his life. The documentary has aired in 100 of 130 markets across the county and the autobiography is currently one of the top sellers for its publisher, Syracuse University Press.
For most of his life, Robinson has shrugged off questions about how he's overcome some of his life's challenges. In the last few years, he said he's realized he could inspire others by telling his story.
"Growing up, I never had a role model," Robinson said. "I'm hoping people from all walks of life can look at my story and understand that they can overcome some of their challenges."
When Allen lost his job three weeks ago, the first person he called was Robinson, his old college buddy.
"As bad as I was feeling, talking to John made it easier," said Allen, who was about to close on a house before he lost his job. "He's got no hands and short legs, but he never sulks about it. So why should I have this attitude? I got back from him that I can get through this."
Last year, Robinson approached one of his co-workers at WMHT about shooting a short video segment that he could show during inspirational speeches. After following Robinson for a few days, Dan Swinton, a producer at the station, said he realized he could turn the story into a documentary.
"When you see John for the first time, you're shocked by what he can do," Swinton said. "And eventually you become so comfortable with him that that those things become second nature. It is an amazing process."
In 1991, Robinson moved to Toronto to take a job in telemarketing. When he arrived at his apartment, his next-door neighbor, Andrea, spotted him in his car and wondered, "How is he driving without hands?"
Robinson says he's forever thankful for that curiosity. In Andrea, he found someone who would make him spare ribs during their first dinner together without wondering how he would eat them. Andrea had worked at a camp for children with disabilities during high school and said she was comfortable with John from the start.
The two spent hours on her porch watching people, sipping beers and getting to know each other. They were married on his grandfather's farm in June 1993.