typewriter

By Mark E. Smith

I thrive on possessing power. But, not in the way you might think. In my business and family, I, in fact, practice the opposite, seeing my roles as humbly serving others. And, yet, when it comes to me, power is synonymous with personal accountability. I learned at an early age that in order to have power, you must be personally accountable; and, if you’re not personally accountable, you have no power. You can control life or life can control you. It’s initially circumstance, but ultimately choice.

It all started with my failing biology. I was in high school and flunking badly, namely because I wasn’t doing my homework. I wanted to do my homework, but my home life was a mess. My mother and stepfather made our home Hell. I came home from each day to my mother in the most horrendous conditions – always drunk, but sometimes high, overdosed, manic, or suicidal – and then my stepfather came home drunk, where they fought and smashed up the house. My mother loved to break things and my stepfather loved to scream, and it made for long nights. On top of that, I was struggling to develop my independent living skills due to my cerebral palsy. How was I to somehow do homework with so much volatility in my life?

I lay in bed looking at my report card one night feeling ashamed because it was dotted with Fs and Ds. I’d worked really hard to be mainstreamed in an era when it wasn’t common practice, and I was watching it all slip away. I tossed the report card on the floor and decided my parents and cerebral palsy weren’t going to dictate my grades. I had the power, not them.

I went from a failing student to the honor roll the next report card period by literally locking my bedroom door in the evenings and letting my parents trash the house and there lives as I focused on my homework. I remember typing my homework while trembling and crying as my mom pounded on my door, screaming. Still, I wasn’t giving her power over my life. My grades were my responsibility – and I had the power to succeed over all.

Those years of finishing high school with A’s didn’t make me smarter, but they did make me wiser. I learned that our lives, in the long term, aren’t dictated by anyone or anything, but us. Circumstances may set us up as victims, but we can choose to be victors.

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By Mark E. Smith

In preparation of my daughter leaving for college, we cleaned out closets. To my daughter’s delight, we found a stash of 20-year-old newspaper stories on me. One was titled, “Limbaugh of cripple guys.” No, it wasn’t because I was a right-wing conservative – far from it – but because I had a pretty popular voice in mainstream columns and articles in the San Francisco Chronicle and alike that intertwined disability culture with all sorts of topics. When Ghirardelli Square was being pressured by those around the newly-enacted ADA to spend $2 million dollars to build a ramp right around the corner from an existing up-to-code ramp, I was the only one with a disability to write that such money should go toward more rational causes like addressing the city’s homeless problem. Those with disabilities were outraged at me; the general readership applauded me. I, however, didn’t care what anyone thought. I was simply a writer who had my own sense of social justice, and wasn’t afraid to voice it – with a little youthful rebellion mixed in.

I recently took my daughter to see “Straight Outta Compton,,” the bio-pic about N.W.A, the pioneering rap group that was truly misunderstood – and took both a page from the Civil Rights movement decades before and foreshadowed 21st-century race relations. I remember hearing N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” album in 1988 – and have listened to it ever since – thinking, This is a brilliant, brave, rebellious protest album above all else.

F@ckin with me ’cause I’m a teenager
With a little bit of gold and a pager
Searchin my car, lookin for the product
Thinkin every nigga is sellin narcotics

Those lyrics placed in context of what we’re seeing today – the incredibly painful, strained relations between the police and, namely but not exclusively, the black community – prove historically accurate and eerily prophetic.

The next eve, I was with my fiancée at a jazz festival, where so many were of my generation and older, some having lived during the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and everyone sat neatly in rows of folding chairs, the bands cordially playing. And, I thought, Where’s the rebellion, where’s the social commentary from the diverse stage that black lives matter, especially given the events of recent, not to mention history? Even my daughter’s pep band at George Mason University has taken to playing a very political Rage Against the Machine song. Come on, Spyro Gyra, pound out an instrumental of N.W.A.

Then, as I sat there pondering all this, it happened. I saw a breathtaking example of the truest form of rebellion, about not being constrained by the social conformity of sitting in perfectly-formed chairs, listening to politically-correct musicians, following the other sheep, but about being true to what you stand for, who you are, what compels your soul.

In the row in front of us, a young lady with a progeriod syndrome – bald, aged facial features, frail stature – walked out to the aisle with who I presume was her father, and they began getting down, dancing. I bet many at the event would love the self-freedom, the rebellion to just follow their soul and dance in front of hundreds of composed strangers in perfectly-aligned folding chairs. But, she was the only one who did.

I understood at that moment that the spirit of true rebellion comes from one simple truth: no matter if you’re N.W.A or that dancing young lady, true rebellion is when you have the courage and the confidence to just be yourself.

skydive

By Mark E. Smith

Have you noticed that when it comes to making big life decisions, there’s rarely a “right time,” and that those who wait for the right time, rarely end up making such life changes? Why is that?

Typically because there’s never a right time when it comes to making big life changes. Yet, so many of us create right-time rules that seem responsible, but really prevent us from ever making big moves – because the fabricated right time never comes. People set the most unrealistic prerequisites that they ultimately sabotage what’s truly important, never making big life moves. I’ve had kids – there’s never a right time, but it always remarkably works.

My fiancée and I, as responsible 40-somethings with kids – one off to college, the other, second grade – have had the “right time” all figured out. Being bicoastal, we went between the two coasts for almost two years, ultimately planning every “right time” detail for her move to the East Coast. Details surrounding houses and dogs and kids and finances went on and on, and every time we tried to figure out the “right time,” something logistical wasn’t the right time. We began in May working on the move with August being the “right time.” However, based on our right-time ideals, certain logistical aspects simply hadn’t worked out. What we’re we to do? Put off the move, put off the wedding, ration our love until the intangible “right time” somehow appeared, maybe next spring?

No, we decided the only right time was now. I mean, really, with houses, dogs, kids, finances and on and on, there’s no right time! We just had to do it. We didn’t have it all figured out, but got creative and focused on what was most important, what was at our core desire: to bring our family together. So, on a Sunday night, we booked one way plane tickets, and declared three weeks from then was the “right time” to move. Of course, it wasn’t logistically the right time – but it never would be! – but it was emotionally the right time.

And, that’s what the right time comes down to – that is, are you emotionally ready to make a life changing decision? I don’t care how responsible you think you are, if you play the waiting-for-the-right-time game, you will almost never accomplish your goals. Accomplishment comes from doing, not waiting. You have to have the courage and the confidence to go for it.

See, there’s only one way to skydive – you jump out of an airplane. If you wait, you just end up back on the ground, sitting in an airplane seat. However, if you want to experience the awesome thrill of skydiving, you just have to jump.

Life is like skydiving, if you wait too long, opportunity passes you by. However, if you know what you want, and you take a healthy leap of faith, you’ll be astounded at the rewards that you experience.

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By Mark E. Smith

There’s guts and there’s glory, and they don’t always go together. And, I like it that way – the authenticity of guts is where real character resides. Guts for the sake of glory is a facade, just as easy to put up as it is to take down.

When I met MMA champs Daniel Cormier and Alexander Gustafsson in the green room at Fox News I, frankly, wasn’t impressed. I mean, they were nice guys – and could literally kill me with their martial arts skills in an instant – but they looked like normal-build, relaxed dudes. Once they’re in a cage, I guess they strive to beat each other to death, but in everyday life, they struck me as average guys. We chatted a bit and they seemed pals – that is, until they got on the air to promote their upcoming fight and feigned being enemies.

Earlier that morning, I got up at 4 a.m., and slid nude from the tall hotel room bed to the floor – more of a fall, really. From there, I crawled to the roll-in shower, tensing every muscle in my body to keep my balance. That’s one of the odd aspects of my cerebral palsy – even on the floor, I can still fall, and I do.

Once in the shower, I couldn’t reach the valve, but there was a grab bar just below it, so with my right arm, I did a complete one-arm pull-up, struggling with my left hand to turn on the valve, my knees banging against the tile wall. Without coordination or the ability to accurately adjust the temperature or move clear of the shower head, it was a crap shoot whether ice cold or scalding hot water would rain down on me. But, I didn’t care. I just needed a shower, and was willing to do what it took, painless or painful. And, with the shower just being the start in my process of getting ready for the day, it would be another three hours of vying until I was in my power chair. Nothing comes easy, and some of it is downright harrowing. The only thing on my side in these times is tenacity and a bit of fearlessness. Guts, I would say.

Now, my disability experience is no different than that of many others. We quietly overcome extreme daily obstacles, often enduring pain and taking huge risks – braking a bone or busting your head open isn’t hard to do in a situation as mundane as using the commode. And, to me, that’s where guts come in. You know the risk, but move beyond it because you have no choice if you wish to be independent.

See, while I respected the dedication of the MMA fighters, they didn’t command my admiration like my peers with disabilities. The MMA fighters are in it namely for the glory, they can turn guts on and turn guts off. You can’t do that with the daily challenges of disability – you’re all in, and there’s no tapping out.

Soon, we were all on set, Daniel and Alexander being interviewed about their upcoming fight. And, as I waited off camera, my segment coming up next, I listened to them talk about how tough they are. Admittedly, the ego in me – the MMA fighter within me with guts but no glory – was hoping the anchor would ask them, “OK, I get that the fight is coming up, but tell us about your challenges in the shower this morning….”

civil rights

By Mark E. Smith

At this writing, it’s the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – and if you’re among my readers who thinks it doesn’t pertain to you because you don’t have a disability, then you should especially keep reading.

See, the ADA isn’t merely about ramps and access to public transportation, but it’s literally civil right legislation. Its intent is to protect those with disabilities from all forms of discrimination. In so many ways, it’s an add-on to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination of all kinds based on race, color, religion, or national origin – but it doesn’t include disability. Hence, in part, the ADA.

In this spirit, on the 25th anniversary of the ADA, I don’t see it merely as a milestone toward social inclusion of those with disabilities, but an opportunity for larger questions: Can we legislate acceptance, and what’s the ultimate solution to civil rights for all?

I’ve spent about half of my life both pre- and post ADA. Yes, I’ve seen vast societal shifts in inclusion and infrastructure toward the positive over the past quarter century via the ADA, just as I’ve seen greater acceptance of all so-called minority classes. The United States is a far better place post the Civil Rights Act and ADA.

However, I personally still encounter those who stereotype me and, yes, the occasional instances of discrimination based on my disability. And, I’m not alone. From in our personal lives to watching the nightly news, who among us doesn’t still witness racism, sexism, antisemitism and every other labeled form of discrimination we’ve ever had?

What I’ve learned in the second half of my life, as a member of a “protected class,” is that while you can legislate socially-inclusive processes and infrastructure, you can’t legislate tolerance or acceptance, you can’t legislate what’s in someone’s mind and heart. Prejudice can’t be legislated out of someone.

I hear rumblings from the local diner to Capitol Hill that the remaining solution to prejudice and discrimination is additional legislation. However, there’s really only one ultimate solution.

As much as we see civil rights as a societal issue, it’s not. Rather, civil rights is a personal issue, and it’s ultimate solution is found within each and every one of us. Yes, we can legislate public policy, and rightfully so. However, we, more importantly, must engage our minds and open our hearts, to where civil rights isn’t just an ethical societal concern, but more so a personal moral standing, where we simply see all others as equal as ourselves.

issues

By Mark E. Smith

We’ve all been there. We’re cruising down the road in our car, and we suddenly hear an odd, consistent noise or feel a vibration or see the temperature gauge rise. Whatever the abnormality, what’s the first thought that crosses our minds? …Maybe it will go away!

But, it never does, right? It predictably gets worse, where we end up with a mechanic’s bill when the problem is so bad that it must be addressed. After all, how often have you seen a real problem fix itself or not get worse with a car? No, the longer we ignore an issue, the worse it gets.

Life is no different. From our relationships to our health to our finances to our careers, when issues arise, they almost never resolve themselves, but actually get worse – that is, until we address them or suffer ultimate consequences.

Yet, again, how often do we simply hope they’ll go away on their own? …We had a brutal argument where hurtful things were said, but it’s a new day, so everything is fine. …I’m having this health issue, but why go to the doctor when I’m sure it will get better. …If I don’t open that stack of bills, I won’t get stressed out about money. …My job is terrible, but a job is a job.

We’ve all dealt with one or more of these scenarios in these totally dysfunctional ways, and it feels reassuring in the moment. I know, I’m guilty as charged! However, what I’ve learned is that denial and complacency are the equivalent of a noose around our neck – the longer we wait, the worse issues get.

It’s taken me a lot of years, but I’ve gotten much better at not denying issues, but addressing them. What I’ve realized is that a lot of why we don’t address issues is fear. Yet, not addressing them actually sustains fear, whereas addressing issues alleviates it. How often do we have serious issues in our relationships and don’t address them out of not wanting to rock the boat or, worse yet, out of fear of abandonment? And, so we pretend as if all is great – till the issue comes up again and we think, “Why do I have to keep going through this?”

Well, we don’t need to. No matter the issue, the only way to resolve it is to address it – and that takes bravery because we don’t know the outcome. Addressing serious issues in a relationship can improve the dynamic or bring the relationship to an end. Going to the doctor for a health issue can deliver good news or bad. Opening a stack of bills can prove that you have more money or less. And, changing jobs can increase your satisfaction or decrease it. Yes, there are unknowns in addressing issues, but it’s guaranteed to bring resolution, as opposed to sustaining fear and anxiety.

For me, addressing issues isn’t about an ideal outcome, but about peace of mind and accountability. I don’t want issues in my life, and when they arise, I want them addressed, good news or bad, put to rest. My daughter’s car was recently acting up, and with a college tuition bill siting on the kitchen table, the last thing I needed was an auto repair bill. If only the car could fix itself! So, with great apprehension, we had it towed to the dealer, and I was presented a monster repair estimate for a blown engine. That car is now in the junkyard, and she has a shiny red sports coupe! The issue could have ruined our summer and finances, but we addressed the issues step-by-step and just took care of it. It wasn’t my ideal outcome – but maybe my daughter’s because she got a new car for college! – but all is resolved. And, it’s the resolution of issues that’s the ultimate goal.

Often, we’re so apprehensive toward addressing serious issues in our lives that we don’t just consciously avoid taking action to resolve them, but we’ll actually subconsciously block them out of our realm of possibilities. We’ve all been in situations where everyone sees the writing on the wall except for the one in the mess. What I’ve learned is that our friends and family are excellent gauges when it comes to recognizing issues that we may not see. When multiple people bring an issue to our attention, let’s not dismiss them as naysayers, but truly listen.

We all have issues in our lives, but how – or if! – we address them is the difference between health and dysfunction, success and failure, contentment and fear. Let us not turn away from issues, allowing them to worsen, but address them head-on, where the only problems in our lives are the ones we’re solving.

roots2

By Mark E. Smith

For 18 years, I’ve run an Internet message forum where consumers can exchange information, as well as ask me questions, regarding mobility technology. I started the forum, in fact, before my careers in the mobility industry and writing took off. Today, both the mobility industry and writing – often overlapping – are more than full-time jobs. Yet, I still run the message forum, routinely addressing needs 20 hours per week or so, often on Sunday mornings or at 10 o’clock on weeknights.

With my career so established and the fact that the message forum has intentionally never generated income, some have asked why I keep doing it? After all, it adds stress and absorbs much of my so-called free time, and 18 years is a noble run.

My answer is simple: I never forget where I come from. See, that message forum originated from my just wanting to use my two passions – power wheelchairs and writing – to support my peers in their mobility plights. Fortunately, my career flourished, but my sense of loyalty to the message forum members has never wavered – it’s a privilege that they’ve allowed me to remain part of their lives through almost two decades.

We often see people, companies lose their roots, and it isn’t pleasant, is it? People become too good for where they came from, companies no longer care about customers. It’s easy to be humble when you have nothing; it takes true character to be humble when you have everything. I believe the ultimate measure of success is staying true to your roots, true to what got you to where you are.

The key to this is reminding ourselves of why we started doing what we do in the first place. I was talking with my CEO the other day, and he said that when he got into the durable medical equipment industry in 1986, he knew nothing about medical goods, but he knew how to treat consumers. It struck me as fascinating because he and I have spent the last 15 years talking about how to forever better serve consumers – it’s why we’re in our business. In fact, in recent years, a key focus is to constantly remind all of our employees – and ourselves – why we do what we do within our company, where we simply strive to improve the quality of life of our consumers every day.

Beyond the boardroom, I see couples struggling and I often wonder, what brought them together in the first place? Do people and life really change that much? Surely some do, but for many couples they simply forgot along the way what made each other special to begin with. It’s a losing of roots, getting too big for each other, you might say. It’s like any success that goes to your head – you take important aspects for granted. If it’s not too late, sometimes a simple remembrance of why you fell in love can be the spark that reignites the flame.

The fact is, humility and success must go hand-in-hand or you’re ultimately a failure. From our careers to our love lives, let us never leave our roots behind; instead, let us humbly plant them deeper as we go.