The Ultimate Rebellion

By Mark E. Smith

There’s rebelliousness, a lawlessness that goes with living with disability – especially when we’re doing it phenomenally well. After all, if we’re going to succeed with disability, it requires us so often to defy common logic, throw caution into the wind, and go where others would never dare. We taunt diagnoses and prognoses, and defy that which gets in our way. And, there’s a charm to it all, where even while others initially think we’re out of our league trying to pull off the seemingly impossible, when they see us do it, they realize how death-defiantly determined we are to succeed, no matter the challenge.

And, for many of us, make no mistake, death-defying ties into it – literally. Everyone says that none of us can escape death; however, some of us have, and others of us continue doing so – and it’s the ultimate rebellious spirit within us that’s enkindled. In my case, I wasn’t supposed to live past a few days after birth; in other cases, my peers weren’t supposed to live from the accident scene to the hospital; and, in yet other cases, I have friends who’ve long outlived their prognoses of progressive conditions. We all know that we’re going to die eventually, but the fact that we’ve already rebelled against it once and won is a heady start to addressing all other aspects of living. If you’ve looked death in the eyes, and mocked it – and there’s nothing more bad-ass than that! – the everyday mortal world should be a cake walk, where you write the terms as a true rebellion – and, most importantly, value what it means to truly live at a level few others dare. Break the rules, make the rules, and live life on your terms – period. Be an outlaw.

Call Me Shallow, But….

By Mark E. Smith

When J.R. Martinez, known from his roles on “All My Children” and “Dancing With the Stars,” was in the hospital recovering from burns over 40 percent of his body, including life-changing facial disfigurement, his mother had a very straight talk with him, one that would guide him to the true depths of his character.

See, J.R. was an American soldier in Iraq, having enlisted at just 19, when his Humvee ran over a landmine, catapulting him to a path of 33 surgeries in 34 months, resulting in the loss of an ear, and permanent facial disfigurement. J.R. describes lying in the hospital, glancing in the mirror, seeing a monster looking back where he once saw a handsome young man – all sending him into a deep, dark depression.

But, J.R.’s mother, older and wiser, saw something else in the situation: The truest essence of her son. “People aren’t going to love you for how you look,” she told J.R. “They’re going to love you for who you are. And, that is a true blessing.”

J.R.’s mom was so right – and J.R.’s success proves that. I mean, the grace and humility with which he presents himself doesn’t make his disfigurement go away; rather, it makes his character shine brighter, where his facial attributes are part of him, but not the sum of him. J.R. is living proof that our exterior facades are just that – facades – and it’s our true character that matters beyond all else.

Yet, not everyone understands this concept. Surely, there are many superficial people in our culture who dwell on appearance alone – their appearance, everyone else’s appearance – and there’s a personal tragedy to it. Literally, when one dwells on appearance, not only can they never be seemingly good enough – after all, there’s always someone better looking by such shallow standards – but they never see others beyond an exterior facade, resulting in never developing deeply sincere relationships.

An acquaintance told me the story of her being a smoking-hot 26-year-old, living life in the fast lane in a Southern California beach community, where her friends and boyfriends were all from wealthy families. She drove nothing but Mercedes since the age of 16; she went shopping virtually every day to keep up with the latest trends; she had breast augmentation, a nose job, and routine Botox treatments; her girlfriends were the hottest of the hot, and they could cut the line at any club; and, she refused to date a guy who didn’t have a buffed body and a Porsche, no exceptions. And, all was moving along perfectly in her world of self-described perfection – that is, until she reached down to grab a CD off of the floor of her newest Mercedes, crossed the lane on a twisting road, and slammed head-on into a guard rail, the impact leaving her a quadriplegic.

But, the accident and paralysis were just the beginning of what she saw as the biggest tragedy of the time. Upon the accident, friends initially rushed to her bedside, and then slowly they stopped coming or calling. While she was in rehab, her friends hit the clubs as usual, and her buffed boyfriend who she thought was Mr. Right (after all, he had a Porsche!), promptly began sleeping with her soon-former best friend. Indeed, she learned that her relationships were as much a facade as her glued-on fingernails and sprayed-on tan. “When we place so much emphasis on our exteriors that we overlook the importance of who people really are on the inside, we take a huge risk,” she shared with me. “Trust me, when your identity and view of others is simply a house of cards, it crumbles fast.”

Going back to J.R.’s mother, she was absolutely right in the scope of her advice: Disability does allow us to have often times deeper relationships, a sort of interpersonal mechanism that protects us from the shallow people among us. Disability is a sort of barometer that gauges the character of of others, only letting the best of the best get close to us – and that’s a great opportunity.

Yet, like all opportunities, we must welcome others accepting us, as-is. J.R. could have used his unique appearance and initial self-consciousness to hide from the world, a way of judging himself and becoming bitter toward others, a presumed lack of acceptance. But, instead, J.R. chose to see the depths of his own character, not just the scars on his face, and he put himself in the world, trusting that he would witness the best in others, as well. Of course, as we now know, his self-acceptance has created universal acceptance by millions of adoring fans, all based on his demonstrating the depths of his character, not an external facade.

As for me, I strive to dress nice and present myself well, but the reality is, I’m a visibly flawed guy with cerebral palsy when viewed on the surface – and I’m OK with that, as the depth of my character hopefully shines through to some. However, when some don’t have the capacity to see beyond my lack of physical perfection, I’m fine with that, too, where I’m glad not to have those “emotionally blind” people in my life. Call me shallow, but if someone is more concerned about the imperfection of my physical appearance than the quality of my character, I don’t want that person around me – and I’m glad that my disability serves as a smoke screen to keep such people away.

What’s really wonderful, though, is that when we recognize the interpersonal value of being embraced for our true character, not our superficial facades, we instinctively return the gesture, being much more open toward others. And, we end up with an amazing exchange – where we’re both seeing each other on the most genuine levels – and that’s how the sincerest relationships are formed. If I accept you for you, and you accept me for me, now we’re truly connecting – and that’s where we all should be in our interactions with those around us.

Someone recently asked me what true acceptance of others really means? And my answer was coy but fitting: True acceptance is the sincerest gift that we can share with another person.

I Refuse….

By Mark E. Smith

I refuse to be that guy, the one in the wheelchair, who strangers see rolling from here to there – crumpled-up and bound. No, I’m flying by, with bulging biceps and a tattoo that say, You can’t define me, so F- you and F- him, too.

I refused to be pigeonholed, stereotyped, or discriminated against – because, while I can’t kick-in doors with my legs, I can obliterate them with my intellect, where I will outwit, out-charm, and alarm with an I.Q. that will rock you like The Who trashing a stage.

I refuse to be dismissed – swinging palsied fists when I get pissed – and when I say I’m going to do it, you better step back, stand away, and make a path because I will not stop till it’s done, son. The ticktock of the clock tells me to do it better, faster, more accomplished, like I’m a man on fire trying to outrun the flames, where my disability is empowerment, not an object of shame.

I refuse to be undesired – my game is my attire – where I smile while chugging a double of Southern Comfort at a bar, with a swagger that women must admire – my distinctions aren’t distress but a cut above the rest. Man, I love her in that low-cut, red dress.

I refuse to sing the blues or follow the rules that say disability is tragic. In my mind, it’s a blessing of magic, where I’m different as you can see, and I refuse to be anyone but me – and I dare… you heard me… I dare to disagree.

Yeah, World, as you may or may not see… damn… it’s good to be me, no matter what you think of my dis-a-bility.

Protesting Oneself

By Mark E. Smith

It’s intriguing – and bizarre – how some within the disability community are appalled by the concept of “disability awareness programs,” going as far as to belittle their peers with disabilities striving to raise the public’s understanding toward living with disability. There are even groups with disabilities who literally protest others with disabilities for engaging in disability awareness programs.

Now, you may be logically wondering why some with disabilities would criticize and protest others with disabilities for striving to raise awareness? After all, doesn’t disability awareness benefit everyone, including both those with and without disabilities?

Of course it does; but, let me explain the critics’ argument because their position has some merit – that is, until we analyze the entire picture.

I agree whole heartedly with the critics that I cannot teach anyone what it’s like to be me – that is, one with a severe disability. Through the various disability awareness programs that I’m involved in, I can express to non-disabled individuals a bit of what it’s like to have a severe disability, but they can’t possibly understand the true day-in, day-out physical, emotional, mental, and social impacts that living with a disability entails. And, this fact holds true for any of our understandings of other groups beyond which we belong. For example, I know of the struggles that many who are gay can face because I’ve been made aware of the issues through reading, hearing, and meeting those educating others and raising awareness on the topic. However, as a straight man, I truly have no idea what it’s like to be gay in America, as everyone has always supported the fact that I’m heterosexual – that is, I know of the struggles that one can face being gay, but I can never really know what it’s like to literally be gay since I’m straight, and my sexual preference has never been questioned or condemned by anyone.

It’s this issue – that we can’t literally teach others what it’s like to be us – that the critics argue makes disability awareness programs unsuccessful. However, the critics take it one notch further – they actually think that disability awareness programs diminish others’ views of living with disability, making our lives appear as frivolous. After all, they argue, if you place an able-bodied kid in a wheelchair, they turn it into fun – and there’s nothing fun about living with a disability. According to the critics, then, disability awareness programs are nothing more than a mockery of disability experience, a modern-day freak show for others’ entertainment.

However, where the critics wholly miss the target is that disability awareness programs aren’t about making strangers “disabled”; rather, disability awareness programs are simply about increasing awareness. The fact is, as disability educators, we can’t literally make able-bodied people disabled, and, therefore, of course they’ll never understand the whole experience. However, what we can do is raise their awareness of disability in general, in engaging ways, through exposure to those with disabilities – and that, in itself, is of vital importance. See, as humans, we fear the unknown, and when it comes to understanding others who are diverse from us, the unknown breeds apprehension, ignorance, and stereotyping – none of which we wish directed at those of us with disabilities. The only way to overcome this is through making others aware, even in the smallest of ways, that people with disabilities are simply people, too. And, it works, where an able-bodied person’s positive experience in learning about disability almost always remains with them as they go out into the world. Sure, having able-bodied kids play wheelchair basketball as a disability awareness lesson seems frivolous compared to our actually living with disability; however, the process allows the children to intrinsically build a better comfort level, seeing a wheelchair not as an unfamiliar, frightening device, but just as a wheelchair – and, as a result, they’re more likely to see people who use wheelchairs in a more accepting light. It’s just common sense: Awareness helps create understanding.

All of this brings us back to the original, logical question of, why would some with disabilities criticize others’ efforts to increase disability awareness, especially since it serves everyone in such positive ways?

Because, in many ways, such anti-awareness individuals misguide themselves toward self-defeating hypocricy. They claim to want social equality, but they refuse to interact in positive lights with others or make any effort to improve societal views for the better – instead, their irrational protesting of awareness programs makes them look as detached extremests, actually harming how others’ view of those with disabilities. And, we have to ask, what does such divisive behavior gain for any of us?

The answer is, nothing. In fact, it sets us back. If a city holds a disability awareness day, and individuals with disabilities protest it, the average person watching this play out on the evening news rightly asks, What the heck is wrong with these people – they’re protesting themselves? When you break down the subject of people with disabilities protesting disability awareness efforts at any level, it’s strikingly irrational – hypothetically like cancer survivors protesting cancer awareness efforts.

Of course, I realize that we can’t change the opinion of someone with a disability who’s extreme enough in his or her views that he or she criticizes or protests disability awareness. However, it is regretful that such individuals strive to defeat others’ good efforts, especially since we know that disability awareness programs work. In my own case, I’ve seen the positive effects first-hand that disability awareness programs bring in my working with thousands of Boy Scouts this past summer. Among the most touching results that I’ve witnessed is that I’m currently involved with several Eagle Scout candidates around the country who, based on going through the disability awareness program, switched their Eagle Scout projects toward efforts that serve the disability community – that’s a very real impact. Indeed, as I’ve witnessed time after time, it’s through disability awareness that individuals see less of a disability and more of a person in the end – and such powerful results should be fostered and pursued, not criticized and protested.

Come to think of it, maybe the critics with disabilities who don’t understand the importance of disability awareness programs need to attend a sort of disability awareness program of their own, where they learn that it’s not the wisest effort to protest oneself.

The Power of Wakes

By Mark E. Smith

People are very kind in noting how they’re inspired by my spirit, sometimes asking how I stay so passionate, inspired, and fired-up about life? Sometimes they’re blunt enough to note that living with a disability surely isn’t easy, that my career in itself, dealing with rightfully frustrated consumers, can’t be a pleasant job at all times, either. And, when they know a little bit about my childhood, coming from the wrong side of the tracks, they’re even more intrigued, wondering how do I stay so eternally positive and inspired?

My answer to the question is a simple one: I’m constantly on the lookout for inspiring people, circumstances, and teachings in the world around me – and I follow their leads. I’m humbled and inspired by others around me on a daily basis, and it’s their efforts that encourage me to live my best.

Years ago, when I was routinely boating in the rough waters of the Pacific Ocean, I had one of the smallest boats in the recreational fleet during salmon season each year. And, when I headed out from the San Francisco Bay, under the Golden Gate Bridge as a lone boat, it was a brutally-rough ride, getting pounded by the very tumultuous waters where the ocean meets the bay – an area called the “Potato Patch.” However, I learned that if I tucked my small boat in the wake behind larger boats, the ride was a lot smoother – the larger boats broke the waves for me, clearing the path. By simply following boats bigger than mine, I made greater headway.

My everyday life today is just like my time spent boating on the Pacific – I’m always on the lookout for those greater than me to lead the way, true inspirations to help me grow as a man, father, friend, colleague, and businessman. And, there are no shortages of inspirations everywhere that I look. I’m forever impressed by witnessing everyone from strangers in public demonstrating pure kindness, to colleagues making honorable decisions – and countless examples in-between – all of whom inspire me to strive toward excellence.

Indeed, when we’re on the lookout for inspiration, it’s impossible not to find it in the everyday greatness of others, and that makes us remarkably optimistic about what each of us can accomplish. However, what’s interesting is that so often our culture tells us to look at the rich and famous or so-called accomplished as inspirations, but that’s rarely where our true, lasting inspiration is found. Rather, our true, lasting inspiration is usually found in those around us every day, those who are doing the extraordinary with no fanfare, those who do right simply because it’s their nature.

I’ve had the chance to get to know a gentleman who works at a Subway sandwich shop near my home. And, in talking with him, I learned that he lives with his girlfriend, and has assumed the role of father figure to her two children. Wanting to build a life for his girlfriend and her children, he takes three community college courses per week at night, bringing his books to work at the Subway shop each day to study when there are no customers. Having been an English major, myself, it’s been my privilege to meet him at the Subway shop one evening per week, and help him with his formal papers. And, I look at this gentleman and think, Man, everyone should learn from this guy’s initiative and dedication! After all, how can one meet a guy who works at Subway by day, probably making $8 per hour before taxes, to support his girlfriend and her kids, while attending college at night to better himself, and not be inspired by his efforts of doing whatever it takes to move his life forward? He’s been very gracious in noting my inspiration to his life, but I truly don’t hold a candle to his inspiration – his unyielding dedication shows me week after week how much more we can all achieve if we simply apply ourselves, building success from the ground up.

At this writing, I’m in the middle of working 14 days straight – that is, working last week, having worked the Abilities Expo all weekend, getting home late Sunday night, then getting in my office Monday morning by 7:30am, working the present week as usual. And, when I got home from work Monday evening, 8 days into it, I was as tired as I’ve ever been, just wanting to go to bed. Yet, I knew that due to being on the road, I hadn’t worked out in my gym in 4 days. Sure, dead-tired, I could have gone to bed, easily justifying not working out, reckoning that both my body and mind just needed rest. But, then I thought of my childhood friend, Stephen Wampler, who has severe cerebral palsy like me, and is currently preparing to climb El Capitan, the granite cliff in Yosemite, planning to pull himself up 6-inches at a time with a special harness, where he’ll spend an estimated week doing it, specifically to raise money for a camp for kids with physical disabilities. And, he’s training like a maniac for the climb, where we all know that he will make it to the top, no matter what.

As I rolled by the closed door to my home gym, on my way to my bedroom – again, where I just wanted to go to bed! – I reminded myself that Steve won’t give up no matter how tired he gets, so why should I take the easy way out, and go to bed when I had every ability to push myself further? Of course, following Steve’s lead, I changed into my workout clothes and hit the gym. See, when you know of inspirations like Steve, it’s all but impossible not to live your best, so I’m always drawing upon others as inspiration, especially when I feel like I’m on the verge of taking the easy road instead of digging down and pursuing excellence.

While I’m constantly on the lookout for inspiration and use it to enhance my life, many around us are oddly blind to inspiration, choosing to dwell on the negatives in their lives, ignoring the empowerment to be gained by acknowledging the inspiration in others. Middle management in corporate America is a great example of such self-defeating, oblivious cynicism because you run into so many disgruntled, jaded employees – a striking phenomena not lost in in popular culture, where media ranging from comic strips to sitcoms illustrate life in a cubical that’s somewhere between boredom and insanity. However, where the real issue resides is in a lack of inspiration and admiration of others. After all, in many company cultures, when someone is promoted or gets a better job, the coworkers are often more inclined to whisper back-stabbing sentiments about the person rather than celebrate his or her accomplishments. Yet, when someone moves forward in life, what we really should do is be inspired by his or her accomplishments, admiring the effort, and learn from his or her success – that is, we should be thrilled to witness excellence because it’s a model that helps us grow. If she did it, so can I! is the spirit with which we should live.

Disability culture can be a lot like working among middle management, where some with disabilities can be quicker to criticize others than to be inspired by their accomplishments. For many years, I’ve known a strikingly beautiful woman who uses a wheelchair and is married to a wonderful man who doesn’t have a disability, and they have several terrific kids – they’ve worked hard, made responsible decisions, and live with uncompromising integrity. Still, to my dismay, others have flung criticisms at them since the day that they were married: She only married him because he’s able-bodied; he only married her because he could never get such an attractive woman who was able-bodied; and, on and on – horribly jealous, spiteful words coming from the disability peanut gallery of individuals arguably miserable in their own lives.

However, rather than criticizing the couple, the cynics ought to find inspiration in them, learning how to achieve such a loving, supportive relationship in their own lives. I look at the couple and I’m truly touched, not only in awe of their accomplishments, but I’ve sought to better understand the traits that allow them to retain such a healthy, fulfilling relationship, so that I can apply them to my own life. Again, when we acknowledge others’ greatness, it presents us with our own opportunities to learn and grow – that is, it allows us to be inspired.

This concept of recognizing the countless forms of inspiration in the everyday people around us, and using them as guiding stars, is by far among the most effective ways to motivate and improve our own lives. The fact is, if someone else has accomplished any given goal, it typically proves that we, too, can accomplish it – and that’s the true spirit of inspiration. The world is a mirror, where when we see the best in others, we’re also witnessing the potential in ourselves. Look for inspiration in those around you, and strive to learn from the best – for, when you do so, you’ll soon enough propel yourself from following their wake, to creating your own.

Facing the Flames Within

By Mark E. Smith

Tiger Woods. What’s up with that whole dysfunctional drama-rama? I mean, the guy attended Stanford University, but isn’t smart enough to know that vices don’t void your problems? Even I know that – trust me, I’ve tried. No, I haven’t slept with 14 adult film starts – not even one, thank goodness – but I do know that escapism never, ever works. In fact, escapism just makes any problems in our lives worse – really, really worse in most cases. Just look at how it’s played out for Tiger.

Now, make no mistake, I’ve tried escapism to avoid my own problems at times. I remember at least one night where I didn’t feel like all was going the ways I wished, and I went out and got rip-roaring drunk. And, when I awoke the next morning, not only were all of my problems still there, but I felt like my head was a banging drum and my stomach a churning sea, not to mention the other I can’t believe I did that thoughts racing through my mind. Escapism didn’t resolve my issues; rather, it added to them – as it always does for all of us.

See, our issues in life are like fires, and when we seek escapism – alcohol, drugs, sex, overeating, overspending, you name it – we’re not dealing with the issues that need addressing, merely avoiding them with vices. And, then the fires – the not addressed issues in our lives – just rage, until we lose complete control, and it all comes crashing down in flames. That’s the deceptive nature of escapism: It distracts us while our lives fracture.

Surely, some with disabilities are professionals at practicing escapism – they avoid facing the fires within when coming to terms with disability. After all, if you’re a woman who questions her “value” as a future wife and mother due to disability – wondering if you can ever be that so-called “ideal” woman – what’s an easier escape from those scary emotions than to engage in promiscuity, where you prove to yourself that you’re worthy by sleeping with man after man, feeling validated in the moment, right?

Or, if you’re a guy who’s struggling to come to terms with disability, who’s entirely insecure with his identity, why not just stay high on every prescribed and elicit drug that you can get your hands on? After all, when you’re high, you don’t need to feel anything, or deal with anything, and your doped-up friends require nothing of you, right?

Indeed, escapism is oh so tempting, and I’ve seen many around me engage in it – including myself – in one form or another….

…But, again, it never, ever works. Escapism is little more than degrading and destructive at best, and dangerous at worst. What does work is facing life’s challenges head-on, with courage and clarity of mind, where we don’t avoid our problems; rather, we confront them. When we hit speed bumps in our relationships, careers, or disabilities, that’s not the time to veer and run off course. We shouldn’t seek escapism in the vices that so tempt us – from as seemingly mundane as pulling the covers over our heads instead of going to work, to as blatantly dangerous as drugs and promiscuity. Rather, when we experience rough spells in our lives, that’s the time to get more focused on only pursuing positive directions, and, most importantly, addressing the emotions at hand. Put simply, when there’s a fire, many people want to run from it, but our game plan has to be to run toward it, where we immediately focus and strive to extinguish the flames with an unyielding intensity.

I recall going through one particular tough spell in my marriage, and my friends wanted me to go out carousing with them, insisting that it would be good for me. Again, after all, what feels better to most guys – that is, what’s more validating – than getting boozed-up and hitting on other chicks when your relationship is on the rocks? But, again, it’s a deceptive, harmful path of escapism that just builds a snowball of dysfunction, adding fuel to the fire. What does resolve issues is when we face the emotions in our lives rather than running off in an effort to escape them. As I told my buddies at the time, Look, you Neanderthal knuckleheads, the last thing I should do is drink and chase chicks during tough times in my marriage – I need to focus on my career, my daughter, and all other positive pursuits while working through the emotions surrounding my marriage, not run in the wrong directions.

And, such a mindful approach always works, where it doesn’t prevent or immediately resolve the issues in our lives, but it allows us to address them in healthy ways, where, when we come out on the other side, all aspects are brighter. As I like to say, Run from your problems, and you’ll fail; run toward your problems, and you’ll succeed – it’s just how life works.

No, I have no idea what specifically drove Tiger Woods to jeopardize every aspect of his life to pursue unquestionably destructive sexual escapades. However, common sense tells me that he was using it as an escape from something troubled within. And, some of us with disabilities can find ourselves pursuing the similar paths of escapism, avoiding issues in our own lives by chasing destructive vices – alcohol, drugs, sex, or whatever self-medication one chooses. However, like Tiger Wood’s life proves to the world – and, as some of us have experienced in one way or another in our own lives – escapism not only catches up with us, but it ultimately crashes down upon us.

Face your problems head-on with accountability and self-awareness, and not only will your issues get resolved within, but you’ll be a better person for it, where you’ll be respected, not humiliated, and where you’ll display dignity over degradation. Unfortunately for his family, colleagues, sponsors, and fans, you only need to look at Tiger Woods to prove my point.

Man Vs. Life

By Mark E. Smith

If there’s one common criticism of my writings, it’s that I’m an idealist. However, such critics couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, I’m the most cynical, paranoid person I know. See, I recognize that it’s Man versus Life, and when we’re not living to our absolute best, Life will take us out – it’s itching to drop us to the canvas like a soft-jaw boxer, never to get up again.

I figured out as a young kid that I could never give in to Life – I could never let it win. Sure, it’s tried every day since I was born to tear me apart, but I strive to stay one move ahead of it, a chess game of real consequence. It’s thrown adversity after adversity my way, landing a few blows; but, for the most part, I’ve bobbed, weaved, and ducked, telling it, Is that all you’ve got?

And, yes, it always has more – Life’s a worthy opponent, never ceasing. I give Life credit for being especially proactive with my cerebral palsy, where it thought that it could slow me down, placing an anchor around my neck right out of the womb. But, Life made a strategical error, lacking foresight, not planning on my simply choosing to grow bigger and stronger than that anchor, not dragging it as a burden, but carrying it as an honor.

Then, once life saw that physical limitation weren’t something that would slow me down, it decided to toss in mental and emotional turmoil – dysfunctional parents sure to defeat me. But, like watching old tapes of a boxing opponent, I learned Life’s most devastating tactics by seeing what it did to those around me, where it used addiction and poverty to defeat them. I knew it would send those my way, so I got my fists up as soon as the bell rang, ready to rumble.

Alcohol destroyed the lives of many around me, so I simply had to avoid that slippery slope of indulgence, not routinely drinking. Poverty kept those around me destitute, so I simply had to get a formal education, follow a strict work ethic, and live debt-free. And, irresponsible living took the health of those around me, so I knew that I had to maximize my health. Life lured those around me into easy defeats, placing them on the ropes – but, I wasn’t falling for its tricks.

Pushing 40 now, and having found security against many of Life’s blindsides, I might be inclined to relax a little, let down my guard, not be so cynical or paranoid. No way. To the contrary, I know that Life’s still waiting to tear me apart and rip me to shreds – as quick as we rise, Life will try to make us fall even faster. Life shadows me, where if I have one slip, I know it will kick all of the legs out from under my table, crumbling me like house of cards. But, I won’t let it. I sleep with my eyes open. I keep sobriety on my breath, and money in the bank. I work till I collapse on the keyboard, and I workout till my arms feel raw, ready to tear from my torso.

Life may be pacing me, but I’m pacing it, where when I take my last breath, I will know that I’ve likewise left Life bloodied, gasping on the canvas, with nothing left, from among the most epic battles it’s ever faced.

Roll In Like You Own the Place

partymark
By Mark E. Smith

We hear of those who note that disability can be a hindrance in social settings. After all, if you roll into a club of the glamorous, and you’re the one using a wheelchair, it visually tags you as “different.” However, even in the most superficial of social scenes, who says that appearing as “different” because you use a wheelchair has to be bad for your social life? In fact, is it possible that your “difference” can actually work for you in the positive when it comes to making new friends and winning over a room full of strangers?

If you’ve ever met me in person, you know that I’m an always-upbeat, outgoing kind of guy, enjoying any social setting. I smile and say hello to everyone. I shake hands with men, and kiss women on the cheek. And, I always throw humor, wit, and charm into every conversation. I genuinely like people, and I learned long ago that when I relate warmly to others, they respond equally well to me. Sure, my disability still freaks out some people, but I find that in almost any circumstance, my personality can move them over to a level of comfort that helps them see beyond my disability, to the point where it can even give me an edge over others in a social scene.

I have been known to end up out carousing with friends every once in a while, landing at hip, trendy clubs where the guys and gals take pages from the Hollywood set. The dudes are typically pumped-up and decked-out in their designer duds, and the women are usually bleached, tanned, and nail-polished like Barbie dolls on the loose with Daddy’s platinum card. What’s often striking among such crowds, though, is that at some point, one of the “beautiful people” usually asks someone in my group who I am? In fact, recently a woman in such a scene asked if I was someone famous? My friends and I, of course, thought that the woman’s question was hilarious, especially since we overheard one of my friends reply, “That’s Mark – of course he’s famous.”

But, why would a stranger in a club ask if a cerebral-palsied guy using a wheelchair like me was famous?

Probably because when I’m out, I go big – all in, large and in charge.

I roll in elevated on my power chair’s seat lift, bump fists with the door man, and smile as I stroll through the crowd. I make eye contact with everyone I see, saying, “Hey, how are ya,” and move in like I owned the place. Within minutes, I’m chatting it up with folks around me, soon I’m grooving to the music, and my cache grows from there. At some point, the band often dedicates a song to me, and I end up partying the night away like a rock star, drawing moral boundaries when needed, but having such an over-the-top time that my friends know that there will be Monday morning stories to tell – or deny.

So, how do we, as those with disabilities, roll into a social situation and sway it our way? Or, more aptly, how does a big-eared, goofy-smiled, spastic dork like me me win over a jet-set crowed of strangers?

With energy and confidence – that’s how. It amazes me how some with disabilities automatically presume that the fact that they appear physically different penalizes them socially among strangers. But, it doesn’t have to. I mean, sure, if you’re utterly self-conscious about you’re disability, it will absolutely hold you back, where people may very well observe that you are shy, insecure, and uncomfortable when you roll into a room. And, no one seeking a good time wants to be around a shy, insecure, uncomfortable person with a disability – or any such person, for that matter.

However, what I’ve learned is that our “differences,” including disability, don’t have to be limiting disadvantages; rather, our “differences” can unquestionably serve us as empowering distinctions. It’s all in how we present ourselves – that is, outgoing, confident, and comfortable.

When you roll into a social scene in a wheelchair, people will notice you – and that can be a huge advantage over others who simply blend in when they enter a room. With everyone’s eyes drawn to you because you’re different, you then have the opportunity to turn it into a distinction by flashing your smile, making eye contact, saying hello to everyone you encounter, acting like you’re all but running for political office – that is, you can exude a confidence and charisma that’s unmistakable, where people think to themselves, “Who’s this cool cat in the wheelchair working the room?”

Then, there’s a snowball effect, with others noticing that people are warming up to you, peaking everyone’s interest even further. Next thing you know, you’ve got an entire scene of people comfortable, with women and men alike actually coming up and introducing themselves to you, where you’re holding court in the center of the place like you’re a true celeb. In these ways, it’s amazing how quickly you can turn your entire persona as one with a disability from one of obviously different to captivatingly distinct.

Surely, rolling into a room full of strangers like you’re a rock star is a scary thought for some. After all, lots of people are self-conscious and shy, and the perceived difference that disability suggests can absolutely affect one’s self-confidence for the worst – all of which adds up to making it seemingly impossible to pickup one’s social game and view one’s wheelchair as a people-magnet. Plus, based on lifestyle and career, some people don’t have an opportunity to hone their social skills as much as others.

However, it truly doesn’t take too much confidence or skill to begin – just enough courage and awareness to thrust yourself into the scene, and smile, make eye contact, and have light conversation. I often try to ditch my friends at some point when we’re out, and go off on my own to meet new people simply because it’s a skill that takes constant developing, where the more we socialize with strangers, the easier it gets – practice makes perfect. If you look at it that way, it’s truly quite simple, isn’t it? I may feel insecure on the inside, but I’m going to suck it up, flash a smile, look others in the eyes, and work my way through the crowd like I’m the popular co-ed on campus! And, you will be.

Now, just like anyone looking to work a social scene, it’s important to address the occasion as a whole, aware of how you present yourself and who you associate with. For starters, always dress appropriately for the occasion. If you show up at your local hot-spot in stained sweatpants and a wheelchair expecting to win over a crowed, you’ll appear out of place at best, creepy at worst. Disability doesn’t negate pride in appearance, and you should dress with flair, where people’s eyes transition from your wheelchair to noting how well you’re decked-out. Call it shallow, but simply dressing nice, with good grooming, goes a long way toward increasing one’s status, wheelchair or not.

Similarly, use discretion toward who you’re around – and who’s around you. Let’s face it, if the social scene has booze, the person using a wheelchair will likely become a draw for drunks. “I love you, man!” every drunk will say, putting their arms around you, patronizing. Stay away from these people, and when they approach, make it clear that you want them to leave you alone, period. You want others in the room to see you as empowered, and if others see you engaged with drunks patronizing you, others will likely write you off, back to “different” instead of as distinct. Esteemed, empowered people don’t associate with slobbering drunks, and neither should those with disabilities.

Put simply, view your wheelchair as a positive hook toward capturing attention, then let your class, character, and personality carry you the rest of the way. Dress the part, act the part, and make yourself the one to be known, disability and all.

Make no mistake, your disability will get others’ attention, but you have the ability to dictate that it’s for the better. The next time you’re out on the town, roll into the social scene like you own it, flashing a never-ending smile, acknowledging everyone with eye contact, striking up conversations with a quick wit, and show the room with your empowered presence that you’re not just the one with the wheelchair, but also the one with the charisma and personality to set the place ablaze.