Facing Invisible Fences

By Mark E. Smith

Friends of mine installed an “invisible” dog fence, one where a wire is buried in the ground, and if the dog gets close to it, it safely shocks him via a collar, deterring him from crossing the boundary. My friends trained the dog well with the system, and for over a year, he stayed in its boundaries. However, one day, my friend came home to discover the dog lying on the front driveway, well outside of the invisible fence, sunning himself without a care in the world.

Of course, my friend presumed that the fence wasn’t working, and the installer came out to check the system. Oddly, all was working correctly. Wondering how the dog got out of the invisible fence, they decided to try an experiment. They placed the dog on the inside of the invisible fence, stood on the outside, and called the dog. At first hesitant, the dog then suddenly charged through the shock field, right to freedom. Sure, the dog was momentarily shocked by the fence, but he seemed to know that by simply getting past an instant of pain – and not being deterred by the prospect to begin with – he could go wherever he wished. Till this day, you’ll find that dog sunning himself on the driveway, his owners having given up on trying to contain him in the backyard – he set his own boundaries, and my friends have learned to respect them.

We should all take a lesson from that bold dog. How many boundaries – how many limitations in our own lives – are we refusing to overcome, not because we can’t, but because we simply don’t? How many of us aren’t living our best lives because we’re simply not willing to truly explore our potentials, thrown off by past experiences, fear of the unknown, or avoidance of potential discomfort?

Yet, here’s the bigger question that summarizes them all: How many of us are turning reasons into excuses? We all know that aspects aren’t right in our lives – maybe its our relationships, career, health, finances, or disability – but why aren’t we making painstaking, life-changing efforts to address them? Why aren’t we bursting through the invisible fences in our lives?

This past summer, I had to look at my own potentials, and once again question if I, myself, wasn’t turning a reason into an excuse? I was fortunate to have been in the midst of my best summer ever, with a boat on a lake, spending remarkable quality time with family and friends on the weekends. Water sports were big on my boat, from tubing at speed behind the boat to anchoring and swimming in glass-calm coves. Yet, week after week, while everyone else was in and out of the water till no end, I stayed in my wheelchair, behind the helm, never entering the water. See, when I was a child, I took swimming lessons, and my muscle tone and muscle spasms were so severe due to my cerebral palsy that I was instructed to never, ever enter the water again, for if I did – even with a life vest – I could easily drown, sinking like a rock. So, despite having a life-long passion for boating, I stayed out of the water my entire adult life – fearful of it based on my childhood experience and warnings.

Yet, this past summer, as boating days past, I wondered if I shouldn’t go into the water – that is, I wondered if I wasn’t turning a reason, cerebral palsy, into an excuse, my own fear of the water? I wondered if my not swimming was an invisible fence that I was simply accepting as one of my life’s boundaries?

Interestingly, as the summer went by, family and friends encouraged me to go into the water, and I explained to them that I couldn’t due to cerebral palsy – and they’d drop the issue, accepting the answer as a logical reason. But, I couldn’t accept the answer inside of myself. See, we can convince other people that reasons are reasons, but it’s much harder to convince ourselves, deep-down, that reasons aren’t excuses – it’s called shame.

Ask those in debt why they’re in debt, and their first reactions are usually to deny or minimize their situations. Debt is almost always based on a lack of personal accountability – spending more than one can afford – and there’s most often a sense of shame that goes with it, as shame occurs when we know we’re doing wrong, but keep doing it anyway. However, where the psychology of debt becomes really interesting is that it’s all about people turning reasons into excuses. After denial or attempted minimization, those in debt will almost always give you several seemingly logical reasons why they’re in debt when pushed on the subject: My car was old, so I needed a new one; we were expecting a baby, so we needed a bigger house; I had a rough year, so I deserved a vacation…. But, deep-down, most people in debt know why they’re in debt – that is, because they irresponsibly spend more money than they make. However, as long as they continue coming up with reasons as excuses – my car was old, so I had to buy a new one! – the dysfunction continues. Now, debt is one example of how using reasons as excuses holds us back, but it’s a component of most dysfunctions, and if we don’t stop using reasons as excuses in all areas of our lives, the courses of our lives never change for the better.

So, there I was nearing the end of the boating season, shameful in knowing that I was turning my reason, cerebral palsy, into an excuse for my fear of water. And, I knew that I had to address it – I had to live up to my potential, expanding my boundaries, crossing one of my invisible fences.

For two weekends in a row, I had swimming trunks laid out in the morning – and, for two weekends in a row I allowed fear to get the best of me, where I didn’t put them on, electing pants instead. Not wearing swimming trunks is yet another perfect reason – read that, excuse – not to go swimming!

The third weekend was the deal-breaker for me. I realized that I could easily keep using the reason why I couldn’t swim, cerebral palsy, as a lifelong excuse to never enter the water. Or, I could live up to my fullest potential, and push myself beyond my boundaries, overcoming my fear, taking the plunge into the lake. In an overly dramatic debate, I ultimately fathomed that the risk of drowning was far less of a consequence to me than living the rest of my life in fear, shame, and imposed limitations – that is, I’d rather take a so-called risk in a noble attempt to emotionally grow rather than live knowing that I couldn’t overcome my fear. I decided at that moment that I was going to stop turning a reason into an excuse, and simply force myself off of the boat, into the water. I was going to cross that particular invisible fence in my life.

I’ve pursued what some might kindly describe as brave accomplishments during my life, many out of pure necessity in living with disability. But, literally throwing myself off of my boat was among the most harrowing that I’ve ever approached. After all, I had built up decades of fear, and I had no clue what to expect when I hit the water. But, what was extraordinary was that once I crossed the point of no return – once I’d left the deck of the boat, and plunged into the water – fear immediately turned into liberation. No, the liberation wasn’t physical – after all, my body did tremendously struggle. Rather, the liberation that I experienced upon entering the water was emotional and psychological – I instantly knew that I had more control over the potentials in my life than ever before. As I thrashed about in my life vest, I was positive that the limitations in our lives truly are like invisible fences – they only hold us back when we refuse to cross them.

Surely, most of us turn reasons in our lives into excuses at times, where self-imposed complacency or fear keeps us from improving upon vital areas – relationships, careers, health, finances, or disability – not because we can’t, but because we simply don’t. However, if we are to move our lives forward, we have to take a lesson from that bold dog, and not just stare at our seeming boundaries in life, but charge through them with all of our might. See, what I’ve learned is that every excuse that we willingly remove from our lives – including those surrounding disability! – allows our lives to dramatically expand, and an amazing event occurs: We grow.

And, that’s the beauty of invisible fences – with honesty and courage, we can charge right through them, where our lives are no longer about self-imposed boundaries but about empowered liberation.

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Stopping the Should’ve-Could’ve-Would’ves

By Mark E. Smith

Imagine for a moment that you’re driving a car at 55mph on the highway, with other cars traveling around you, with twists and turns in the road ahead. And, in a split second decision, you decide that you’re done looking forward, and you’re only going to look backward – foot still on the accelerator, cars all around, and twists and turns in the road ahead. Maybe your family is in the car, and they’re pleading with you in horror to look forward; but, you continue only looking backward, with no discretion toward what’s in front of you.

What happens next?

At best, if your family can get control of the car, you’ll stop on the side of the road, going no where till you realize the importance of looking forward. Or, at worse, you’ll cause a devastating accident, destroying yourself and everyone around you.

Living with disability can be a lot like driving a car, where as long as we look forward, all is notably well. However, the minute we choose to only look backward in life – on what should’ve been, could’ve been, or would’ve been if we hadn’t been effected by disability – life stalls at best, crashes at worst.

A buddy of mine, who received a later-in-life disability, is sure that his life would’ve been perfect if it weren’t for disability. According to him, he would’ve been rich, famous, and in love, but disability has single-handedly ruined his life, and all he wishes is to go back in time and avoid the accident that paralyzed him.

In one of my more blunt moments, I responded to my buddy’s pity party at dinner one night by stating, “You weren’t rich, famous, and in love before your disability, and I know people with disabilities who are rich, famous, and in love – so, has it occurred to you that your disability isn’t the problem here? You’re so busy dwelling in the past and resenting your disability that you’re overlooking all of your potential in the present. Stop looking back, start looking forward, and you’ll finally get somewhere.”

Of course, all of us with disabilities could look back on our pasts, and have pity parties for ourselves, no matter if our disabilities resulted from birth, a later-in-life injury, or a progressive condition. We can all assert that we got the short end of the stick, that if it wasn’t for damn disabilities we should’ve, could’ve, would’ve had the best lives ever. In fact, the best pity-party hosts, like my friend, will tell you exactly how much better their lives would’ve been, scene by scene – and, they should know, as virtually all of their time is spent dwelling in it!

Yet, here’s the problem: When one dwells in the past, the present becomes null and the future void. See, we ultimately only find progress in the present, the only point in our lives that we can control – if not physically, at least emotionally and mentally. However, one aspect of our lives that we absolutely can’t control is our past – and when we get stuck forever trying to somehow control it, like wishing to go back and change it, of course it drives us into depression and destroys our lives. Again, we can’t steer a car forward by looking backward – we crash every time – and the same holds true for life.

The other part of the disability puzzle that keeps some from moving forward is when they insist, This isn’t how it was supposed to be. No, disability may not have been what we wanted, but it’s what we got, and insisting that this isn’t the way it was supposed to be is an entirely futile, looking-back state of mind that’s irrational, to say the least. In my own life, as a young child, I figured out that although my parents pointed to a medical error as the cause of my cerebral palsy, believing that my disability wasn’t supposed to be, it was what it was, and I had to get with the program, as is, and move forward in the present. We can tell ourselves till our last breaths that having a disability isn’t the way it was supposed to be, but it’s only effect is trapping us in a past that we can’t change. However, the minute we look forward, to the way life is, then we’re in control, able to pursue positive directions.

In one of my books, I extensively discuss that life is about change, and if we’re ever going to live successfully, we must embrace change, not fight it. After all, like disability itself, change often occurs no matter our ideals, and if we go with it, we grow, and if we fight it, we stagnate. What’s intriguing is that disability demands that we embrace change if we are to live successfully with it. In fact, have you ever noticed that the very terminology of our physical disabilities – developmental, injury, progressive – instructs us to live in the present, not the past, suggesting how to best address the changes that they bring to our lives? Take a look how they spell out that embracing change and living in the present are paths for success:

If you have a developmental disability, what should you emotionally do as a person? Develop!

If you have an injury-related disability, what should you emotionally do as a person? Heal!

If you have a progressive disability, what should you emotionally do as a person? Progress!

This realization of how disability-related terms are fitting directives on how to grow with change came to me when considering a friend of mine who, for a decade, has had a steadily-progressive disability. Yet, he’s seemingly no better at coping with it today than at diagnosis. Again, he’s one who’s clung to the should’ve-could’ve-would’ves of his past, only looking backward. And, it occurred to me that he literally hasn’t kept pace with the directives of his disability. As his disease has progressed, he’s refused to emotionally progress with it, and has stagnated as a person. Whenever he speaks of how increasingly depressing his life is, I want to exclaim, Obviously – and it’s that way because your disability is progressing, but you’re not! After 10 years, my friend simply hasn’t developed any coping skills, and he never will – that is, unless he stops living in the past, and moves into the present to address the true potentials in his life.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s not a grieving period to disability – there absolutely is. For those born with disabilities, the teenage years can raise why-me? questions. For those with later-in-life injuries, recovery can involve only-if? questions. And, for those with progressive disabilities, initial declines in abilities can usher in what-if? questions. However, we must soon move beyond the grief stages – that is, we can’t allow ourselves to only look backward and hold on to the past forever. At some point, if we’re to succeed with disability – and, more importantly, life – we must shut off the should’ve-could’ve-would’ves, stop dwelling in the past, embraces change, and lives in the present, fully addressing what is.

As an Australian acquaintance of mine put it, You’re disabled, mate – get over it, then get on with it, and quit your bellyaching! His words are a bit more frank than I would choose, but he gets at the point: Let us let go of the past, drop the should’ve-could’ve-would’ve thinking, and move forward in the present, where we don’t stagnate because of disability, but we develop, heal, and progress all the better for it – thriving with what is.

…It’s That You Give


By Mark E. Smith

I recently had the privilege of attending our local fund raising gala benefiting the American Cancer Society. As I mixed and mingled, what struck me was that virtually everyone I spoke with was directly effected by cancer – many had been through cancer, and others were in the midst of treatment. All, however, had gladly paid the ticket fee, and were likewise bidding on items – that is, those effected by cancer were directly financially supporting the organization that helps those with the condition.

What occurred to me was that the cancer benefit was in stark contrast to benefits that I attend relating to physical disabilities, where there’s virtually no presence or support by those with the condition or other physical disabilities. In fact, at the last Muscular Dystrophy Association benefit that I attended, I was one of only three people with a physical disability in attendance among 200 or so individuals supporting the cause.

Interestingly, disability-related charities, like the MDA, have been cutting services in the past year due to dramatic drops in donations, and those with disabilities, ourselves, have been the first to become alarmed. The irony is, disability-related charitable funding is dwindling in large part due to our own blatant neglect as those with disabilities. When it comes to supporting disability-related charities, we, as those with disabilities, truly don’t financially support them – and it’s illogical. After all, our community is the one who benefits from such charities, so for us to allow them to fall by the waste side based on our own financial neglect is entirely self-defeating.

Now, you may be thinking, Mark, you’re stating an oxymoron. If we could afford to support disability-related charities,we wouldn’t need them in the first place. Disability charities exist because we’re a tremendously economically disadvantaged group.

And, such a statement is true – but only about half true. Approximately 33% of us with disabilities are employed, earning equivalent salaries to our able-bodied peers, some earning well into six-figure incomes. Yet, others with disabilities live on sizable monthly disability benefits, while others live on funds from legal settlements. No, not everyone with a disability is fortunate to have a meaningful income, but a segment does.

The question, then, becomes, why aren’t we, as those with disabilities, donating to our own community’s charities, especially those among us with incomes, rather than expecting the mainstream to do it – and worst of all, crying foul when they don’t?

Because we’re back to that I-got-mine attitude again, where it’s every person with a disability looking out for him or herself, with little thought toward our peers. But, that’s not how we make progress as a community. Rather, we make progress by supporting our peers when we’re in a position to do so, where we address our needs as a community, where we understand that when an additional person among us rises – through mobility, education, employment, housing, and recreation – we all rise a bit higher in the eyes of the mainstream. And, so supporting the charities within our own community – which is among our ultimate forms of self-empowerment – truly moves us closer to full social equality.

As those with disabilities, our formula for charitable contributions is a simple one: 10% of our pre-tax income should go to disability-related charities. If one earns $50,000 per year, one’s annual charitable contribution should be $5,000. That $5,000 would by two ultralight manual wheelchairs, dramatically improving the mobility of two individuals in need. That $5,000 could fund three residential access ramps, allowing three individuals freedom from the confines of their homes. That $5,000 could send nine children with muscular dystrophy to summer camp, a social experience that positively effects the rest of their lives. And, $5,000 would fund two communication devices, allowing two individuals to express themselves as never before.

Indeed, $5,000 is a great example because it shows what an enormous impact a middle-class income can make on others. By simply skipping that vacation and cutting back a bit on a few luxury purchases throughout the year, one family can make an immeasurable difference in the lives of many others. And, when one equips an individual with a wheelchair, ramp, or communication device, that individual is then able to better serve others, so an exponential growth of good work occurs, reflecting positively on all of our lives. That $5,000 “investment” in others can eventually build into $500,000 through the recipients’ good works paid forward over the courses of their own lives – that is, when you help someone, and they help someone, your initial investment keeps growing.

Of course, $5,000 is a specific dollar example, but 10% of one’s pre-tax income is the rule to live by. If one’s blessed with a $100,000 annual income, donating $10,000 to disability-related charities is great; but, if one earns $15,000 per year, $1,500 in donations is just as terrific. Even for someone just getting by on SSDI, saving $43 per month for charity sends a camper to MDA summer camp – that’s an enormously empowered, influential feat. And, time is money, too, where volunteering is also of tremendous importance – even if one can’t spare a dime, one certainly should be volunteering at a local center for independent living or MDA office or any disability-related charity.

So often people make charitable giving about finances. However, 99% of the time it has virtually nothing to do with our financial limitations, but everything to do with our priorities. And, as those with disabilities as a whole, we clearly don’t prioritize our finances toward supporting the charities within our community. I’ve mention some amounts that may startle some – as with if one makes $50,000 per year, one should give $5,000 per year to charity – but if one is living a financially-responsible life, and prioritizing serving one’s own community, donating 10% of one’s income is absolutely realistic. What’s more, those living on even the most limited means usually have some disposable income each month, whether it’s $30 spent on a video game, or $2 spent at the doughnut shop. Again, the ability to donate to a charity is rarely based on true financial limitations, but is based on our ability to prioritize how we spend our individual dollars, and it’s our obligation to prioritize our financial lives – skipping the video games or doughnuts, if required – so that we routinely contribute to disability-related charities.

While we should invest in others through charity simply because it’s the right way to live, we also gain in the process. An astounding benefit to charitable giving is that when we invest in others, we ultimately invest in ourselves, where our lives – almost magically and instantaneously – become brighter, more positive. The absolute fact is, the happiest, most content people that you’ll ever meet aren’t the richest, most famous, or most attractive; rather, the happiest, most content people you’ll ever meet are those who are truly dedicated to charitable giving. And, even the rich and famous state that the personal satisfaction of charitable giving trumps all in the end. Bill Gates of Microsoft, consistently among the richest people in the world, stepped down as CEO to focus full time on running his charity, donating $28 billion dollars to date. Gates has publicly stated that this is the happiest time in his life, and his wife, Melinda summarized their charitable vision, saying, “The premise of this foundation is one life on this planet is no more valuable than the next.”

In my household, I’m raising my daughter on a very similar charitable principle to that stated by Melinda Gates: We don’t purchase any luxury unless the exact same amount goes to charity, period. If my daughter wants to fly down to visit her great-grandfather during spring break in West Palm Beach, Florida, for golf lessons, her trip won’t cost $300, but $600 because the $300 cost of her trip has to be matched by an equivalent $300 charitable donation. And, I’m held to the exact same standard. We don’t get any luxury unless we contribute to others in the process – and if we can’t afford to match the luxury with a donation, then we simply don’t get the luxury. Although this means of personal charitable giving may seem over-the-top to some, it makes living an equitable life in consideration of others extremely simple.

I don’t know what your financial capacity is as one with a disability, but I do know that our community’s charities need your help. If you’re fortunate to be gainfully employed or have a meaningful income, a minimum of 10% of your pre-tax income should be going to charity. Or, even if your finances are a challenge, a few dollars or volunteering your time can make a tremendous difference in the lives of others. If you have a lot, give a lot, and if you have a little, give a little. And, in the end, that’s what it’s about: It’s not what we give to others that counts; rather, it’s the mere fact that we give to others that makes the biggest difference within our community.

Sometimes it is 23 Instead of 13

parenting
By Mark E. Smith

This fall ushered in tremendous changes for me as a father. With my daughter now reaching 13, she’s unmistakably growing up. In our school district, junior high and high school are consolidated into one, so I literally went from waiting for the elementary school bus each morning with my daughter last year to dropping her off at the high school on my way to work this year. Over one summer, it seems that my daughter went from a child to a teenager. In fact, she did.

To her credit – and my saving grace so far – my daughter has been handling her transition extremely well. Despite all of the distractions – from learning the ropes at “high school,” to being a member of Drama Club and band, to a booming social life – she’s done extremely well during the first grading period and continues dedicated and responsible in our home life, as well.

This past Halloween was another hallmark for me as a father: It was the first year that I didn’t take my daughter trick-or-treating. Instead, she chose to go out trick-or-treating with her friends, supervised by a few mothers. As one of the mother’s Volvo station wagon pulled away from our house – carrying my daughter dressed as Bat Girl, and too many of her friends in costumes to identify – I was both proud and a tad nostalgic as I sat in the doorway, waving goodbye.

At 9:30pm sharp, as planned, my daughter’s friend’s mom pulled up in our driveway – kids flopping out every window with energy – and when I opened our front door, there was my daughter on our front porch, with her friend, Marc.

I noted Marc’s supposed-to-be-scary costume – an escaped zombie convict – then waived to everyone in the car, my daughter all wound up, rushing past me, talking about the sights and stories of the evening, plopping her bag full of candy on the kitchen table. As I closed the door and turned off the light in our foyer, the thought hit me: Did a “boy” really just walk my daughter to the door?

He sure did. And, as a father, it’s part of my job – along with guiding and communicating – to accept that my daughter continues growing up. No, my role isn’t to let go by any stretch – as at 13 through college, my daughter needs my guidance and boundaries more than ever – but I need to realize that I’m dealing with an evolving person, and just as my daughter grows, so must I.

Parents and their children with disabilities go through the same journey as my daughter and me – one of a child’s growth toward autonomy – but often at a much later age. The reality is, based on social stigmas and physical limitations, many of those with disabilities don’t begin exploring social experiences and autonomy till much later in life – often, not until their 20s or older – and that fact can dramatically complicate the boundaries that exist between parent and child.

For many teens with disabilities, they simply aren’t as socially active as their peers. Stigmas toward disabilities still remain, where teens with disabilities can be somewhat isolate from a wide scope of peers, and physical limitations may restrict how readily teens with disabilities interact with their peers – I know that as a 13-year-old with cerebral palsy who used a wheelchair, I couldn’t run off with friends in their moms’ Volvos like my daughter can. Further, parents and relatives of teens with disabilities can be understandably overprotective at times, creating an upbringing where physical care and disability-related needs eclipse socialization and autonomy. As hard as it is for those of us with able-bodied children to allow our children to grow up, it can be even more emotionally harrowing for parents of those with disabilities.

As a result, many with disabilities don’t begin to explore their true independence until they are in their 20s, most often facilitated by peer groups who are more accepting at that age of those with disabilities than when everyone was in their teens.

The question then becomes, how do both the parent and the child with the disability deal with the child’s late explorations of socialization and autonomy? After all, it’s one thing to set a 9:30pm curfew for an able-bodied 13-year-old where the parent and child roles are clearly defined, but how do a parent and child with a disability cope with such a situation when the “child” is 23?

The answer is, both the parent and adult child with a disability must be especially cognizant of the situation. The fact is, an adult child with a disability who’s lived a notably sheltered life is not emotionally a teenager or an adult, but somewhere in-between. Most teenagers develop peer socialization incrementally, and that slow, boundary-setting process evolves one’s decision-making skills based on years of social experience – it builds the protection mechanisms of judgment over time. Put simply, healthy teens don’t go from junior high to a drunken fraternity party overnight; rather, they gain social experience slowly, from hanging out with friends to dating, progressing year by year toward more mature social experiences, which then gives them judgment at hand when needed.

Yet, some with disabilities can find themselves with very limited social experience until, say, college, where they are suddenly in very adult situations, without the prior social experience needed for proper judgment. In this way, outsiders who say that a parent of a 23-year-old with a disability shouldn’t be concerned or involved in the adult child’s decisions may be overlooking the reality that the 23-year-old may still be developing his or her social experience and judgment, and requires a guidance that his or her peer group typically does not at such an age. Therefore, those with disabilities – and outsiders, as well – sometimes need to recognize that what may seem like an overbearing parent may, in fact, be a parent who’s especially wise and well-meaning, recognizing that the adult child with a disability still needs guidance at an older age.

Of course, a wise and well-meaning parent of an adult child with a disability must also recognize the importance of allowing his or her child to develop autonomy during the teen and young adult stages. Again, it’s easy for parents to hang on to the role of caregiver and guardian of a child with a disability so tightly that they overlook the child’s necessity for social experience and autonomy well into their child’s adulthood. However, as a parent of any child, while we must first ensure our child’s general safety, we must also allow his or her personal growth within appropriate boundaries, letting him or her earn his or her independence from us one decision at a time, disability or not, 13 or 23.

Interestingly, adults who acquire a later-in-life disabilities and their parents can find themselves in a similar circumstance, where boundaries and roles can revert to a very parent-child relationship, even though the adult child may be, say, 40. It’s a difficult situation when an adult child returns home with a disability, needing parental care. How, then, does an autonomous adult re-merge with his or her parents’ household, and how do the parents accept the adult child’s entirety of adulthood while providing physical care and emotional support?

In two words, it’s difficult. However, it’s not an impossible balance. Again, boundaries must come into play. The adult child must recognize and respect his or her parents’ concern and love, while the parents must likewise recognize and respect the adult child’s autonomy. Surely, a parent-child dynamic will always be present, but boundaries of adulthood – peer-to-peer – must be maintained, as well.

Mutual respect and boundaries, then, are vital between parents and adult children with disabilities, no matter if it’s life-long or later-in life disability. And, in my experience, when mutual respect and healthy boundaries aren’t maintained, the consequences can be catastrophic to all individuals involved. I’ve known many young adults with disabilities who, due to lack of social experience, and against good judgment and parental advice, have landed themselves in very harmful situations, from as common as simply making poor life choices, to as severe as being in abusive romantic relationships based on unresolved disability-related social insecurities and naivety. I’ve also known parents so overly involved in their adult children with disabilities’ lives – such as showing up on the child’s honeymoon – that they’ve either stagnated their children’s emotional growth, or destroyed the parent-child relationship altogether. Therefore, it’s critical that families address the realities of a child maturing with a disability via great awareness, where both the parent and adult child recognize their own roles and boundaries, as well as respect that of the other person.

Certainly, teens and young adults with disabilities are just like all others – they are diverse, where some socially mature sooner, while others later, some mastering social intuitiveness, while others struggle, needing guidance. However, it’s vital that both adults with disabilities and their parents recognize that there can be delayed social experience based on disability – due to physical limitations and remaining social stigmas – where one with a disability may still require responsible parenting into one’s young adulthood and beyond. For these reasons, when we hear of a young adult with a disability struggling to gain autonomy from his or her parents, let us not merely write off the parents as overbearing and unreasonable, but let us wonder whether the young adult truly has the social experience to appropriate handle a given circumstance? After all, it could simply be that the parents are wise enough to know how to best guide their child into adulthood, with the ultimate goal of healthy autonomy, no matter if it’s at age 23 instead of 13.

Living in the Great State, Detroit

DETROIT
By Mark E. Smith

Which of the two cities would you rather live in? One with a 28% unemployment rate, three times worse than the national average, or a city with a flourishing job market in health care, education, and technology? Would you rather live in a city with among the highest violent-crime rates in the country, or a city with among the best-rated suburbs to raise a family and retire? And, would you rather live in a city where the freeways are lined with blighted, abandoned factories, or a city full of green space and beautiful parks?

Of course, no rational person would pick a city with sky-rocketed unemployment, crime, and blight over one with booming job sectors, affluent suburbs, and tree-lined streets, right?

Not necessarily. See, both of the above described cities are really one in the same: The Detroit metropolitan area – a city that some residents wish to flee, while others tout it as among the best places to live.

Detroit, indeed, proves as a fascinating study toward how our own thinking truly dictates the tone of the world around us. In a recent visit to Detroit, I saw first-hand many of its ailments – such as when driving down the Chrysler Freeway, which looks like you’re passing through a war zone of bombed-out factories at times – but I also saw prosperity and an amazingly vibrant city in its flourishing suburbs and revitalized downtown. And, when I spoke with many who live in the Detroit area, the juxtaposition remained, with clear divisions toward how its residents feel – that is, they either hate or love the city, they either think it’s withering on the vine or getting better every day, with very few opinions in-between. Literally, based on who you ask, Detroit is either Hell on Earth, or among the best places to live in the United States.

Make no mistake, living with a disability is a lot like living in Detroit: One’s outlook plays a paramount role toward its deemed outcome. After all, the world – with few exceptions – reflects one’s own projections back upon oneself. If a resident sees living in Detroit as Hell on Earth, or paradise, it can truly be either one – and the same subjective notion holds true for living with a disability.

A wheelchair, in itself, proves the perfect model – a Detroit, you might say – for how one’s perspective makes all of the difference in how successfully one copes with disability. To some, nothing is more emblematic of all that’s lost than a wheelchair. To such individuals, a wheelchair is an object of confinement, a rolling prison, the most tangible sign of one’s disability. From the inability to walk, to a lack of accessibility, to portraying stereotypes, some see their wheelchairs as nothing but burdensome devices that have destroyed their lives.

To the contrary, others with disabilities see a wheelchair as a tool of liberation, a device that gives them the freedom to pursue as many activities as possible – education, work, family, community – welcoming all of the opportunities that the mobility of a wheelchair brings.

In this way, which perspective, then, do you suppose brings the most satisfaction and success to one’s life – hating one’s disability or embracing it?

It’s a common-sense rule that negativity breeds negativity, and positivity breeds positivity, so if we resent our lives – whether it’s resenting disability, or where we live – our outlooks truly dictate our potential. If one’s resentful toward one’s disability, of course one’s life will seem bleak and limited. Yet, the opposite holds true: If one embraces the opportunities that surround one, as with the life-changing abilities that a wheelchair affords, then one’s potentials seem markedly greater. Man, this new wheelchair will allow me to get around college and finish my degree!

Now, some might say that overlooking the negatives of any situation – from the downsides of disability to the woes within Detroit – is simply denying reality. However, the exact opposite is true. In fact, seeing the positive is about taking responsibility, truly realizing potentials, whereas dwelling on the negative shuns accountability. If you look at two unemployed people in Detroit, the one who stays positive and says, With things turning around, I know there’s a job for me somewhere here in this great city, is the one who’s bound to find a job, unlike the defeated mentality that says, With a 28% unemployment rate, I’m not even bothering to look for work in this Hell hole….

The same holds true with disability – that is, the minute one only sees the negatives, Being in this wheelchair has destroyed my life!, it’s game over, one has lost without even trying. However, when one takes responsibility and focuses on the positives – I’ve got this great wheelchair, now let me use it to reach my fullest potential – all possibilities for success are revealed.

Of course, in bleak situations – having a disability or being unemployed in Detroit – it can be natural to go into a mindset of apprehension. However, one has to make such a mindset initial and temporary, then quickly, consciously find the positives in the situation. Acknowledge the negative, then turn to the positives and potentials that allow one to not just solve an issue but actually elevate one’s life. Again, dwelling on negatives freezes one in one’s tracks and shuns accountability, whereas seeing the positives reveals potentials and fosters action. When your boat capsizes, don’t just float – swim to shore!

I was fortunate to meet a lot of prosperous, successful people in Detroit, just like I know many prosperous, successful people with disabilities – and both have accomplished their goals by staying optimistic, seeing the best even when facing worst. Be one of those types of people, one who doesn’t dwell on what’s wrong, but focus on what’s good and possible, pursuing the potentials that abound in each of our lives.

From living with a disability to living in Detroit, based on my experience, they’re both great places to be if you want to succeed – and a dash of optimism goes a long way.

Cerebral Palsy as Steroids

MARKA

By Mark E. Smith

The shrubs and bushes in my front yard never cease amazing me, year after year. When I planted them eight years ago, in front of my newly-built home, they were tiny plants that merely dotted the landscape – the tallest one was a foot high at most. As the plants saw their first winter in the Northeast, I was sure that the months-long deep freeze killed them all. However, as spring came, they not only came back to life, but they grew exponentially – they were larger and more vibrant than ever. Winter after winter now, not only do my plants survive, but they come back every spring larger and more healthy, to where some are 10-feet tall, a remarkable sight of greenery that encapsulates my front yard, and an unbelievable change from those tiny plants that once only dotted the landscape.

Of course, there’s nothing truly remarkable about the plants in my front yard, as they simply comply with the changes of seasons, the laws of nature – that is, they don’t just accept the changes of seasons, but they literally use them as an opportunity to come back stronger, larger in size, with deeper roots.

As individuals, we, too, are prone to seasons of change, where through various forms of seeming loss – ended relationships, a job layoff, disability, or just overall tough times – we can find ourselves in the depths of winter in a matter of moments. Yet, we must recognize that our own seasons of change are just that – seasons – where as discouraging as life may seem at any given moment, it’s sure to change for the better, especially when we’re willing to work at it and don’t lose faith.

Arthur Blank was one who, in 1978, could have easily lost faith and gotten stuck in the depths of his sudden change of seasons, his winter. After a decades-long career with a national home-improvement chain of stores, he’d worked his way up to regional manager, a very lucrative, prestigious position in the company. But, one day in 1978, after 30 years of loyalty, Arthur Blank had a disagreement with the company’s executives – and he was fired on the spot.

It’s hard for anyone to get fired, ushering in a roller coaster of emotions that are understandably filled with defeat and self-doubt. And, Arthur Blank had them, too. But, not for long. See, Arthur Blank instinctively knew about seasons of change, and when he faced his winter – abruptly fired after 30 years – he was already looking toward his spring, where he wasn’t only going to survive life’s harshest times, he was going to use the changing of seasons to come back exponentially stronger.

Later that year, Arthur Blank co-founded a store that you may have heard of: Home Depot.

Today, Home Depot stands as among the greatest American retail businesses of all time – and it all started with Arthur Blank being fired. Unquestionably, when the seasons change for the seeming worse, we should all follow Arthur Blank’s lead, and use the time wisely, preparing ourselves for the next season, one of exponential growth.

When I was in college, my friend, Rick, followed a seasons-of-change philosophy, as well. In 1992, Rick was a construction worker in San Francisco’s downtown, welding on high-rise buildings, supporting his wife and newborn daughter on a hefty union wage. But, in March of that year, on a dew-covered I-beam, Rick’s construction boot slipped, causing him to fall 20-feet to the floor deck below. When he awoke in the hospital, he was paralyzed, a quadriplegic.

Rather than assume that his best years were behind him – after all, he’d gone in an instant from a strong, independent construction worker to a quadriplegic with dependencies on others – Rick looked toward a new season. He always loved math, a contrast to being a burley construction worker, and so he went to college, first getting an accounting degree, then his M.B.A. Today, he’s a financial analyst for a Fortune 500 company, working in one of the very buildings that he helped construct. And, as well-paying as his union construction job was, he makes about three times what he would been making today if he was still in construction.

Sure, it’s easy to look at any loss in the immediate as a bleak, never-ending change for the worst – it’s natural to be frightened by the loss of a relationship, job, or physical abilities. But, just like meteorological winter and the plants that not only survive, but come back stronger, we also have the innate ability to not just survive, but to truly thrive, even through the toughest of situations. We just need to remind ourselves that there are few constants in life, and just as life knocks us down, it provides even greater opportunities for us to rise up again even higher.

Personally, my life-long goal has been to turn the worst into the best, as often as I can. I strive to not just use turning lemons into lemonade as a cliché saying, but to make it a way of life. And, I’ve recently enjoyed reinventing myself once again using the simple outlook that within every loss – within every winter – there’s a forthcoming opportunity for tremendous growth.

Among the most challenging parts of my disability, cerebral palsy, is that my muscles are in constant motion, either contracting or spasming. As you can imagine, such a lack of muscle control not only makes everyday tasks difficult, but constant muscle movement is extremely fatiguing, to the point that one’s body throbs in pain at the end of some days – this is why muscle relaxers are used by many with severe cerebral palsy.

After living my life with my condition, I’m more used to it than distressed by it – after all, I can’t change my condition, so I accept and deal with it. What I long ago noticed, however, is that despite the seeming downsides to my disability, there are far more upsides offering potential. The same involuntary muscle movements that make everyday living more difficult and painful have actually kept me in great shape, with extremely low body fat and sculpted muscles. It’s often occurred to me that while others struggle with diet and exercise – arguably a national obsession to be thin and fit – my disability is, in fact, a magic pill, putting me way ahead of the game. I can eat as much as I want, never exercise, and stay trim and fit. People would pay for such a body type!

However, always one looking to turn negatives into positives to the extreme, I had an admittedly eccentric – but brilliant! – thought: What if I use my intrinsic physic as one with severe cerebral palsy as a catalyst toward bodybuilding? After all, bodybuilders go through tremendous lengths to get as lean as me, so if I simply hit the gym to build pure muscle mass, I should be able to be a hulking, fat-free, sculpted guy in a matter of months.

So, I emptied our guest room, invested in a high-end wheelchair-accessible gym, increased my caloric intake to 4,000 calories per day, began sucking down supplements like creatine, and started an intensive workout routine.

In taking an educated, methodical approach – and sticking with it – I’ve been gaining muscle mass at a startling rapid rate, where my whole upper body is getting bigger by the week. In fact, I’ve been consistently gaining about a pound per week – an insane amount for a guy with my build to keep adding, week after week, month after month.

During my training process, I’ve been going to the dietary and supplement store that all of the local bodybuilders go to – and, make no mistake, the guys in the store have looked at me like I’m a Martian, surely wondering what this slender, cerebral palsy guy in the power wheelchair is up to by buying these protein blends by the bucket and supplements by the bag full?

Finally, one of the guys behind the counter had the courage to ask me what was up? “You come in here every few weeks and buy all this stuff, and when I look at you now in that T-shirt, your arms are huge,” he said. “What exactly are you doing that’s getting you so big?”

“Just sucking down the crazy crap I buy here, and working out every other day,” I said, putting my discount card on the counter.

“No one gains that much muscle, that fast,” he said, scanning my items. “Dude, you must be doing something else….”

“In all seriousness, my cerebral palsy keeps my muscles in constant motion, and I burn a ton of calories, so by upping my caloric intake and using a wheelchair accessible gym, I’ve basically just been packing on muscle without adding any fat,” I replied.

“Where can I get some of that cerebral palsy?” he asked, laughing. “That stuff is better than steroids.”

Indeed, with every loss comes opportunity – we just need to welcome it. Arthur Blank didn’t see being fired as an end of his career, but as the perfect time to co-found Home Depot. My college peer, Rick, didn’t see being paralyzed as a loss of his existing life, but as the opportunity to redirect himself toward other interests. And, I didn’t see my cerebral palsy as a limitation to working out, but as an advantage in bodybuilding. When we see winter as a sure sign that spring is coming, success is inevitable – it occurs every time.

I say let us live our lives like plants throughout the seasons, where adverse conditions merely serve as the catalysts to make us stronger and more successful, year after year. We can’t always prevent being knockdown in life, but we surely can control how fiercely we get back up.

The First 90 Days to Life

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By Mark E. Smith

If you study the diet and fitness infomercials on late-night television, you’ll notice that most of the before-and-after photos – from flab to fab – show amazing results in “90 days.”

What the infomercials don’t tell you is that their products are a mere secondary factory in the process, that the real magic is in the “90 days.” See, if one performs virtually any diet or exercise for 90 days, results surely follow. The reality, then, to such infomercials isn’t the quality of the product, but the consistency of the person.

Make no mistake, we live in a culture where people gauge success by their watch, not a calendar – they want results in 90 seconds, not 90 days. However, like a diet or fitness routine, much of our success takes time, and requires our consistent effort, where we don’t slack, make excuses, or give up, but simply pursue our goals day after day, with unyielding dedication and passion.

Disability can make achieving our goals – in the physical, mental, and emotional – especially challenging. After all, regardless if one has a lifelong disability, later-in-life injury, or a progressive condition, we’re constantly facing new challenges, where we must adapt and conform over a lifetime of disability experience. And, if we’re willing to approach the entirety of our life with unyielding dedication – where we don’t slack, make excuses, or give up – we see amazing results, not only in 90 days, but never-ending. The key, then, is to invest in ourselves for the long haul, recognizing that the struggles of today aren’t road blocks; rather, the struggles of today are incremental opportunities that build the foundation of our long-term success.

One of my all-time favorite stories of practicing consistency as a “disability strategy” at its best – and one of my own foremost life inspirations – involved my friend, Nola. Nola was born with a rare form of dwarfism that made independent living seemingly impossible. In fact, when I met Nola in her twenties, she lived in a care facility, a grim reality for a young woman of her age, and she’d never known any different, having lived in a care facility since she was a young teenager.

Still, Nola told me of how she sometimes thought about what it would be like to be out of a care facility, not so much to live on her own on a big scale, but to know what it was like to have true privacy, to stay up late and sleep in, to buy the foods she wished – that is, to experience freedoms that the care facility didn’t allow.

However, such independent living was the farthest reality for Nola. The care facility staff was her family, and the residents were her friends. Imagine how impossible and frightening the mere thought of moving out would have seemed for Nola. Nevertheless, Nola and I discussed her gaining more independence. No, we didn’t discuss Nola simply packing up, getting her own apartment, and living happily ever after – that dream was too lofty, too unrealistic. Rather, Nola and I discussed her merely taking a bit more control over her life, one task at a time. We discussed small steps in the immediate that might bring big changes in the long term. You might say, we discussed consistently applying single dollars toward paying down a six-figure mortgage.

And, that’s exactly what Nola did. Her first hurdle was obtaining better mobility, so she worked through the long process, day-by-day, of getting a power wheelchair. Then, she sought a social worker to help her better understand her rights as a care facility resident. And, then she took her power wheelchair to the bank one day, and opened a checking account.

As Nola accomplished each small step, she exuded more and more confidence – and I loved hearing of her progress. However, after a year of monthly calls, a few months slipped by with no word from Nola. I called the care facility, worried that I hadn’t heard from Nola, and the receptionist said that she couldn’t tell me anything about Nola except that she was no longer a resident. Of course, I was very concerned, especially since Nola had life-threatening respiratory illness from time to time. I hoped that Nola’s health risks hadn’t finally caught up with her.

About two weeks later, I received a call from Nola. She apologized for not contacting me sooner, but she had been busy moving into her apartment – yes, her own apartment!

As Nola’s story proves firsthand, our journeys of a thousand miles do begin with a single step, and require many, many more small steps. The fact is, it is sometimes impossible to get our arms around our dreams, we can’t simply go from where we are, to where we wish – we can’t simply loose weight, get in shape, or overcome physical limitations overnight. What we need is a lifetime-long “90-day plan,” where we start with a single small step, and consistently follow through, working to big changes in our lives.

In my own writing a speaking, I frequently discuss how I, too, went through a process much like Nola’s, where in my adolescence, I made the choice to do whatever it took day-by-day to become physically independent, to where I could toilet, bathe, dress, and feed myself – and it took me a long, frustrating seven years of daily battles to accomplish my goals. Yet, as I sit here today, over 20 years to the day that I mark as a turning point in my life – the day at age 18 when I was able to live on my own – I’ve never stopped working my “90-day plan” of consistently addressing daily trials as the key toward long-term successes, big and small.

My entire adult life has been shadowed by a seemingly trivial, yet important, reality: My inability to tie my own neck ties. In my business, I often have to wear neck ties – and I like the professionalism that ties present, as well. Unfortunately, due to my cerebral palsy not only has tying a neck tie been impossible, so has merely buttoning the top button of my dress shirts, as required when wearing a tie. My lack of being able to tie a neck tie or button my top button has kept me frustratingly dependent upon everyone from my family to colleagues when tying my neck ties, and while everyone’s been so gracious whenever I’ve needed help, it’s frustrated me till no end that I’ve gone two decades now without being able to button my shirts’ top button and tie my own neck ties. If I could only tie my own neck ties, it would make my life far easier, less stressful – and, man, would I look handsome!

But, I never gave up. Every day for the past two decades, you would have seen at least one tie sitting somewhere in my bedroom – no, not because I’m messy, but because, night after night, I refused to ever stop trying to tie my own neck tie. Still, after thousands of attempts – and trying every method, tool, and trick one could imagine – the result was always the same: I still couldn’t button my own button, or tie my own tie.

Now, I’m sure that some people wouldn’t think twice about being unable to tie a tie – after all, in the grand scheme of life, who cares, right? But, to me, tying my own tie was about more than a tie. My tying a tie was about perseverance and dedication, where I wasn’t going to let two decades of seeming failure stop me from trying today, tomorrow, and the next day – or, for the rest of my life if I had to. I wasn’t on a 90-day plan, I was on a 90-year plan – and I was fully prepared to go into old age and literally die trying to tie my own tie!

What’s more, my belief in remaining constant to my goal was strengthened when every year or so, I got a little closer to buttoning that top button before it slipped away, and when I got to where I could almost put the tie through itself after wrapping it. Every night of my monkeying with a tie would have seemed pointless and futile to most; however, to me, it was incremental progress – like applying a dollar toward a six-figure mortgage, it still counts, even when it doesn’t seem like much.

Several months ago, after two decades of trying, I nailed it – I honed the process where I could both button my top button and tie my own tie. In fact, I did so right before a big business trip and convention, and I was so excited that I could tie my own neck ties, that I packed eight ties for a four-day trip, wearing a tie around the clock, even changing them from day to dinner. My colleagues made fun of me, stating, “Mark, don’t you go anywhere without a tie on?”

I thought to myself, Man, I’ve spent 20 years learning to tie a tie – I’m making up for lost time!

Indeed, maybe one of your dreams is as lofty as Nola’s, like wishing to move out of a care facility. Or, maybe one of your dreams is as seemingly trivial as mine, like being able to tie your own neck tie. Or, maybe one of your dreams is to have complete control over your finances, like paying off your mortgage. Big or small, monumental or trivial, all dreams and goals are accomplished the same way: With daily consistency and perseverance, where we recognize that no matter if it takes us 90 minutes, 90 days, or, 90 years, we’re willing to apply effort every day toward living to our fullest – regardless of any pain, hardship, and frustration. That is, let us recognize that consistency is the magic key, where the dedicated efforts that we make every single day build the foundation for great success in the long term.

Between 20 and 38

countedout

By Mark E. Smith

I recently received an email from an ex-girlfriend – after 18 years. She found me on the Internet, and expressed in her email that she was surprised by how well I have done in life. In fact, she went as far as noting that she was worried about the future for me when we were 20.

I was baffled by her comments that expressed seeming surprise at my life’s course over the past 18 years. After all, between the ages of 20 and 38, people’s lives change enormously – we go to college, build careers, have relationships, and raise families. It’s what most people do – and why my ex-girlfriend would be surprised that I did it, too, seemed absurd to me. I wanted to email her back with a sarcasm that she might recall, and ask, “What do you think people do between 20 and 38? …They grow up!”

I shared my ex-girlfriend’s email with my closest confident, Drewy, and explained to him that I couldn’t figure out why she was worried about my future when we were 20, or why she might be surprised by how my life has unfolded to date?

In his wisdom, Drewy spelled it out well for me. “Mark, you’re looking at this too rationally – of course your life evolved like most between the ages of 20 and 38,” he explained. “But, she may simply remember you as a 20-year-old with cerebral palsy, from a ‘bad’ family. She was boxing you in based on where you came from, not seeing your potential. So, if that’s been her perspective for all of these years, of course she’s surprised at your success.”

Putting all of the pieces together and looking back, I’m sure that Drewy’s insight was on target. However, what’s striking is that while my ex-girlfriend apparently projected limitations on me at 20, they clearly didn’t deter me one bit. Again, looking back, I wasn’t totally sure where I was going in life at 20 – were you? – but I knew that I had tremendous potential, and I was just warming up. I reckoned that she dumped me for a lot of good reasons at the time – my sarcasm could have been one of them! – but, I definitely didn’t care that among them was her perception of my lacking potential to succeed in life. Failure wasn’t an option for me – success, as always, just takes time – so her questioning my potential at 20 was a moot point in the grand scheme of my life. The game of life wasn’t over for me at 20 – rather, it was just beginning!

What I’ve learned is that one of the most amazing facts of life for those of us with disabilities is that no one gets a vote toward our potentials but ourselves. Doctors, family, friends, teachers, employers – ex-girlfriends! – can all count us out if they wish, but what does anyone else’s grim predictions or stereotyping truly mean to us?

Nothing. We determine our paths in the end, not other people. It didn’t matter that my ex-girlfriend may have seen me as a guy from a family where no one had graduated high school. Rather, what mattered was that I did graduate high school, then tackled college with a vengeance. It didn’t matter if my ex-girlfriend may have seen me as a guy from a family that was poor and dysfunctional compared to her own. Rather, what mattered was that I dedicated myself to personal growth and a work ethic that would allow me to strive toward building first-generation emotional health and financial security. It didn’t matter if my ex-girlfriend may have seen me as a guy with cerebral palsy and physical limitations. Rather, what mattered was that I was willing to apply a never-say-die attitude toward any of life’s obstacles. And, it didn’t matter if my ex-girlfriend may have counted me out in life at the young age of 20. Rather, what mattered was that I was willing to assume sole responsibility for my life and do whatever it took to make my way in the world, where hopefully my potential would ultimately make a difference in the lives of others.

I suspect that you, too, may have been counted out, as well, at some point, by someone. See, whenever you tackle the odds – whenever you pursue great endeavors, like thriving with disability – others are bound to bet against you, to count you out. Yet, we have a choice of if and how we allow others’ critical outlooks to affect us. Sure, no one wants to be dismissed or criticized; but, whether we assume the negative outlooks projected upon us by others is truly our choice. We can allow others’ projections to defeat us, or we can allow our drive to elevate us.

In my own life, I strive to contribute as much as I can toward my peers with disabilities; I’m a loyal, dedicated, hardworking employee; I strive to be there for my friends at all times; and, I give everything within me to my daughter. And, when I look at my life from that 3,000-foot perspective, criticism of me – people counting me out due to disability – is little more than a momentary distraction. My point is, just because I’m counted out or criticized doesn’t mean that I’m adversely affected by it. Count me out, criticize me, and I just keep rolling on my empowered paths. Speed bumps may catch my attention, but they don’t stop me.

The same outlook should be practiced by all of us. No matter who you are, if you’re on a path toward success, you’ll be counted out or experience criticism at some point, most closely from a dysfunctional family member with careless words, or from a far stranger staring you down in public. And, at those moments, you must remind yourself of who you are, that you are an individual of enormous potential and value – and whether any one person recognizes that fact is truly of no consequence to you whatsoever in the grand scope of your life. It’s the positive contributions in the world around you that you make every day – as well as your future potential – that matter, and any words of criticism that come your way by those not in the know truly end at the lips of the person who spoke them. You are remarkable in your own right, and never allow anyone to convince you otherwise with his or her senseless outlook. Someone may think that they know you at 20, but he or she has no clue of your successes at 38!

It’s also important to look at those who count you out or criticize you as truly serving as an inspiration, a sign that you’re doing everything right, that you are succeeding. If you have a disability and pursue education, employment, or community involvement, you’ll likely encounter rudeness and criticism at some points – and that’s indirectly a great compliment. Again, all people who extend themselves beyond what others may dare are criticized. When I was attending college in San Francisco, I rode the public buses every day, and there was one particular bus driver – old and crusty – who taunted me for two years straight. “You and your wheelchair slow down my route. I don’t know what good college will do a handicapped kid like you, anyway,” he’d mumble every time I boarded his bus via the lift.

Nevertheless, when he let me off at the campus stop each day, I thanked him for the ride – and he just stared at me, begrudgingly. What he didn’t realize was that I was really thanking him for his criticism of me, for his counting me out. See, if I wasn’t on my way to college each day, he couldn’t have criticized me – every rude remark he made simply reminded me, Mark, you’re heading in the right direction again today, on the bus going to college, on a path of success.

If you pursue great endeavors – no matter if you have a disability or you’re the President – you will be counted out and criticized at some point, and you should welcome the hidden congratulations within it, as with the demeaning bus driver unwittingly validating my mission toward education every day.

Of course, we, too, must avoid a critical spirit within ourselves, as it does come back to bite us. If we’re critical of others, it’s usually because we’re frustrated within ourselves – and that never proves successful. After all, it’s a lot easier to avoid our own issues when we’re slinging criticism toward others. If we’re not succeeding, we let ourselves off of the hook by counting others out, as well. Life, I like to say, is like a window: When the world appears dull and gray, it’s often because we haven’t made an effort to clean our own windows. You can’t feel better about other people until you feel better about yourself. And, the reverse holds true – that is, make others feel better about themselves, and your own spirit will be lifted in return. Keeping our own windows clean makes all of the difference.

Sure, it’s a shame when others don’t believe in us – after all, we all have amazing potential, no matter our background or physical abilities. However, the only real shame is when we, ourselves, buy into others counting us out or criticizing us. Fortunately, we have the ability to not only deflect others negatives projections, but we can actually use them as inspiration to remind us how important it is to stay on the path toward our fullest potential.

The next time someone counts you out, count yourself up – as it clearly means that there’s an extraordinary opportunity for success right in front of you. Perceived underdogs prove as the most stunning winners in the end.

As for my ex-girlfriend, she’s doing exceptionally well – complete with a Ph.D., beautiful daughter, amazing husband, and she’s impacting her community in wonderful ways – just as I knew that she would. After all, at 20, she had the same amazing potential toward the future as the rest of us.

Discovered on the Bathroom Floor

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By Mark E. Smith

I’ll never forget my embarrassment that day. I was in the sixth grade, and my school sent home another note. It may have been the third or fourth, but this one was more serious, involving the school counselor, not just a teacher’s note. Was I in trouble?

I couldn’t wait to read the note – desperate to know what it said – so on the special wheelchair-accessible school bus on my way home that day, I used one hand and my teeth to tear open the envelope, and read the note. To my horror, the school staff was again complaining to my mother that I smelled of an odor, and that I clearly wasn’t being bathed appropriately, that even other kids were complaining.

And, I knew they were right – I had horrible hygiene. Due to my cerebral palsy, I wasn’t able to toilet or bathe myself, and being dependent on my mother wasn’t cutting it. As an alcoholic, my mother wasn’t taking care of herself, let alone me, so my bathroom accidents and a lack of bathing were par for the course.

What made the note even more troubling to me was that I’d recently visited a care facility and saw teenagers living there with disabilities similar to mine – and I realized that between my cerebral palsy and my mother’s drinking, a care facility might be my own home in the near future. Based on the school’s concerns, it seemed like only a matter of time before Social Services was involved, and if they found out that my mother’s alcoholism prevented her from properly caring for me, I reckoned that I was doomed – possibly to a care facility.

I went to my stepfather for help, and he placed responsibility on me, suggesting that I’d better get my act together as a kid with cerebral palsy and become more independent or I would end up in a care facility. Call his tough love well-meaning or callous, but he simply reinforced my predicament and fears.

So, there I was: Humiliated by my body odor at school, with parents unwilling to take proper care of me, and unable to take care of myself. At 11 years old, I was in the bind of my life, a victim of circumstance.

Yet, that night, I intuitively realized that I wasn’t a victim of circumstance at all, that I was the one truly placing myself in the situation – not my parents, not cerebral palsy, not the school, but me. See, what I quickly realized that night was that I was looking at everyone else to take responsibility, when, in actuality, I was solely responsible for the whole situation.

Now, some might say, Mark, that’s ludicrous. You were a little kid with severe cerebral palsy, in a bad family situation – you were the last one responsible for the predicament that you were in. …You can’t hold an 11-year-old responsible for having cerebral palsy or an alcoholic mother.

Absolutely, I could hold myself responsible – and I had to. No, it wasn’t my fault that I had cerebral palsy or an alcoholic mother, but all of it was solely my responsibility at that instant. I was the one with the body odor, the one who couldn’t bathe himself, the one with the alcoholic mother, the one with the school rightfully concerned – and, there was only one person responsible for resolving the situation: Me.

That night, I did my best to strip off my clothes, pulled my power wheelchair up to the bathtub, and slid myself in, cracking my head on the way down, flopping like a fish, banging elbows and knees off of the sides of the dry tub. With what coordination I had, I turned on the cold water and washed up the best that I could. At last, I used all my might to thrust my body over the side of the bathtub, crashing onto the hard tile floor, bumped and bruised, but a bit cleaner. Maybe this will be easier tomorrow night now that I’ve done it once, I told myself.

As I lay on the bathroom floor that night, starring at the ceiling, nude, cold, beat-up, and exhausted, I believe that I discovered the single most important factor toward living with disability: Our choice to accept full responsibility for our lives no matter what’s happened to us, no matter our current circumstance.

It’s so easy for many of us to justify why our lives aren’t as successful as they could be:

If only I wasn’t born to a dysfunctional family….

If only I didn’t have a disability….

If only things were different….

But, when they’re not different, when life doesn’t go our way, we are solely responsible to take the actions needed to change the course of our lives. We may not create any given tragedy in our life, but we are solely accountable for resolving it, no matter what it takes.

Toward my publically-expressed disability outlooks, the singular criticism that I receive from some with disabilities is that my die-trying approach to living with disability is unrealistic, that just because I, personally, strive to practice extreme will and optimism doesn’t mean that I have the right to expect it from others.

However, where their argument fails, is that they don’t recognize that I don’t practice and teach my own philosophies; rather, I merely practice and discuss the realities of life. See, assuming absolute responsibility for one’s disability isn’t what I expect; rather, assuming absolute responsibility for one’s disability is what successful living demands. Again, we can find entirely valid reasons as to why we’re not living up to our fullest potential, as with my being an 11-year-old child with cerebral palsy and an alcoholic mother, unable to bathe myself. However, until we make the choice to push all of those reasons to the side and assume absolute, sole accountability for our lives, we merely exist and struggle in life – that is, we make excuses and don’t move forward. To put it bluntly, it doesn’t matter who made the mess; we are solely responsible to clean it up.

Maybe life hasn’t gone your way. Maybe it’s knocked you down, then kicked you for falling. Maybe you’ve not only faced profound disability, but any number of other trials, from unemployment to failed relationships to addiction. So what? The solution to any issues in your life, regardless of the breath of the challenge, simply starts with a single question: Are you willing to assume sole responsibility for it, and do whatever it takes to move forward, at any cost? After all, it’s the same question that life has demanded that I personally answer countless times since I lay nude, cold, beat-up, and exhausted on that bathroom floor.

The Factor of G

gratitude

By Mark E. Smith

Here’s a provocative question for you: How is it possible that one with a severe disability excels well beyond his or her peers, including those without disabilities?

For example, how does one explain a college student with severe cerebral palsy, who can’t speak or write on his or her own, graduating college, magna cum laude? Or, how does one explain a quadriplegic who rises through the ranks of the banking world to become a vice president? Or, how does one explain how one born without arms goes on to become a world-renown musician?

Truly, if you think about it, we all know of people with severe disabilities who have excelled beyond their peers with and without disabilities – but, how is that possible? After all, those of us with disabilities aren’t inherently smarter than others, and, in fact, we obviously have notable physical disadvantages over others without disabilities – for example, imagine how difficult it would be going through college without the ability to speak or write. And, statistically, those of us with disabilities can have social disadvantages over others in the mainstream, where prejudice and discrimination remain. Therefore, how is it logically possible that without any seeming advantages – and, arguably, having physical and social disadvantages – those with severe disabilities can often excel beyond their peers with and without disabilities?

This question intrigued me as I thought about my own acquaintances over the years who’ve had severe disabilities but excelled beyond most others – and I wondered if there was a common trait that they shared, a trait that many others may not practice, that’s all but guaranteed their success?

As I went back and analyzed the character traits of my successful acquaintances and peers with disabilities, I saw a clear trend toward their all sharing overall outlooks of dedication, perseverance, and optimism; however, they all shared a far greater form of everyday empowerment than most: Gratitude.

Indeed, my most successful acquaintances and peers with disabilities have all demonstrated unyielding gratitude for what life has to offer, fully embracing every opportunity with optimism and zeal, appreciative of every occasion – that is, they’re excited and grateful to wake up in the morning and tackle the tasks of the day.

Where this realization becomes clearer is when we consider “mainstream” culture, and what little gratitude many have – and, specifically, how it holds people back:

A college education is a true blessing, an amazing opportunity that very few on this planet get to pursue; yet, a 19-year-old will fail college because he simply doesn’t want to wake up early enough to get to class on time. He has no gratitude toward education.

A bank teller will begrudgingly perform her job, doing as little as possible, resentful that she only makes $9 per hour, feeling like it’s not worth her time to come to work, believing that she’s entitled to better. She has no gratitude for employment.

A 20-something will show up in Hollywood with a guitar, thinking that he’s going to get gigs because he’s the next big rock star, then gives up when doors shut on him. He has no gratitude toward success.

In your own life, think about all of the complaints of “entitlement” that you may hear from those around you every day. Three-quarters of your co-workers likely complain about their jobs all day; your kids likely want the iPod Touch because the iPod Nano of last season isn’t cool anymore; and, all your neighbor probably does is whine about gas prices and the economy, no matter if they’re up or down. There’s simply little gratitude wherever we look, where many who we encounter feel “entitled” to all in life, regardless of their own efforts and attitude.

However, what I’ve witnessed is that when those with disabilities – or anyone – possess a sincere sense of gratitude, their lives accelerate like rockets, well beyond others in most cases:.

The young woman with cerebral palsy, who can’t speak or write, but is entirely grateful for the shot at a college education, as everyone should be, of course puts her all into it, and graduates magna cum laude.

The gentleman with quadriplegia, who’s genuinely grateful to have an entry-level position at a bank, as anyone should be, of course puts his all into his job and gets promoted up the ladder to vice president.

And, the man born without arms, who teaches himself to play the guitar with his feet, entirely grateful that he can make music, as everyone should be, of course pours his heart into it, and becomes a huge success.

See, when we’re grateful for what we have on all levels – when we know that we’re fortunate, not entitled – it motivates us to live up to our fullest abilities, where opportunities are recognized before limitations, potentials before excuses. Those who are grateful don’t mope, they thrive.

Interestingly, an overwhelming lack of gratitude is what holds back a lot of people with disabilities. Sure, it may seem understandable for an athletic 40-year-old who was paralyzed in a car accident to look around and say, “What’s there to be grateful for? I can’t walk, and I can’t do half of the things I used to…. My life is a cruel nightmare.”

While some may see such thinking as understandable, it’s entirely self defeating. The lack of any gratitude in such a situation will keep one entrenched in bitterness and excuses, never moving forward in life.

To the contrary, in such a situation, those with disabilities who are successful – that is, those with gratitude in life – have an entirely opposite view: I may be paralyzed, but I’m thrilled to be alive, blessed to have my wife and kids by my side, and although it may not be easy, I’m fortunate that I have my education to help me succeed in the workforce….

And, you can bet that when such an individual is in the workforce, the passion and dedication that he puts into his job – that is, gratitude – takes him to the top.

Of course, gratitude isn’t a tool that only those with disabilities can possess – those who don’t have a disability can possess gratitude, as well, and it brings the same success. However, what I’ve witnessed is that severe, permanent disability can heighten one’s sense of gratitude beyond a common perspective. Again, when one faces loss, he or she can become either bitter at what’s lost, or grateful for what remains – and when we’re truly grateful for what remains, we naturally use what we have to the fullest, making the most of ourselves, propelling toward successes that others may never achieve. Put simply, when disability shows us how challenging life can be at times, it’s often easier to appreciate the oppertunities that we have, and use them to the fullest. A motivated man can dig a deeper trench with his bare hands than three lazy men with shovels.

As one with a disability, I practice gratitude everyday, no matter the circumstance. It takes me hours of struggle to get ready each morning, but I’ve always been grateful for it – that is, firstly, I’m forever grateful that I was able to develop the ability to bathe and dress myself, and, secondly, I’m grateful that I’ve always had the opportunity to pursue an endeavor each day, from my education in the past, to my career in the present.

When my colleagues and customers need my assistance, I don’t regret the long hours or resent more work; rather, I’m truly grateful for the privilege to serve others.

When, I’m traveling on business, and my flight’s delayed, I don’t get upset like others in the airport; rather, I’m grateful to be traveling on business in the first place.

And, when I look at my daughter, she is, of course, my foremost blessing of all, where even if I lost all of my physical abilities, my career, and my worldly possessions at once, I’d still feel like the most fortunate person, simply grateful to have her in my life.

Sure, others sometimes look at me and my cerebral palsy, and only see what’s seemingly wrong in my life – my wheelchair, my wracked body, my slurred speech. But, they don’t know how grateful I am that my wheelchair, my wracked body, my slurred speech, has gotten me so far in life – that is, they don’t recognize what I recognize: The astonishing potentials placed before each of us every day, even in the seemingly toughest circumstances.

Now, some might say, “Mark, gratitude toward everyday life is little more than a lowering of expectations, a denial of accepting how terrible life can be, including living with disability. No normal person is grateful for a life involving pain, hardship, and struggle.”

And, they’d be right – for a bitter, jaded, unappreciative, stagnant person, that is. See, there’s a truth to gratitude that such people don’t understand, that without gratitude we only see the worst in life, our limitations, what we don’t have, what we seemingly can’t accomplish: I can’t walk, and it has taken more from me than you could ever imagine. And, such thinking gets us nowhere but deeper into a self-absorbed, depressed, bitter rut.

However, when we have gratitude, it inspires our outlooks and clears a path of seemingly unlimited possibilities: I can’t walk, but this wonderful wheelchair allows me to have a career, raise my family, and have the freedom to take on the world. Gratitude, you see, makes all the difference, inherently allowing us to see paths of potential over bottlenecks of bitterness.

Whether you’re of the richest and the healthiest, or of the poorest and the sickest, there’s always something to be grateful for – namely, life, itself – and when we simply live with a sincere gratitude for the potentials that we have, no matter our circumstance, it’s impossible not to have an optimism and motivation that will propel us to successes that others could never even dream.