By Mark E. Smith

When I was six, my great-grandmother told me that if I stopped being lazy and simply walked like my brother, she’d buy me a bike. She wholeheartedly believed until the day she died that my cerebral palsy was a farce – I was merely the laziest person she’d ever known. I was a lifelong disappointment to her.

Over four decades later, I have empathy for my great-grandmother, knowing that her outlook was likely a defense mechanism toward dealing with my having a severe disability, a painful reality for most family members in such situations. However, throughout my childhood, she took every opportunity to tell me how my lazy behavior of having cerebral palsy disappointed her.

Growing up, I saw my great-grandmother as a crazy old lady who was on her own when it came to her outlandish opinion of my cerebral palsy as pure laziness on my part. I, in fact, knew that I was making the most out of what I had – and I was fine with the reality that I disappointed her. She had her opinion; I knew my reality; and, I was fine with it all.

What I didn’t realize till in my adulthood was that she simultaniously taught me a great lesson while instilling in me a value that would fuel much of my positive outlook in life: as long as I do my best, others can love or hate me, but the outcome doesn’t change. My job is not to worry about what others think, but to be the best me – and let the chips fall where they may.

Interestingly, it’s proved true in my professional life. Some value what I do – right down to this very essay – while others despise it and me. Both views of me are great – and have no affect on what I do (even if you offer to buy me a bike!).

My great-grandmother taught me an even larger lesson, though: it’s likewise no one’s job to try to please me; rather, my only role is to support others in who they are. I’ve found this invaluable as a father, husband, friend, and colleague. As long as those around me are happy and healthy, living to whatever their personal bests are, I’m thrilled for them. My role is to support, embrace, and love, not judge.

In these ways, just as our job isn’t to please everyone – because that’s impossibe – it’s not our place to want others to please us. By living to this reciprocating standard, we find ourselves in life-inspiring, mutually-embracing relationships of ultimate acceptance. The downside is, no one buys us a bike….

We Need Your Help!

Posted: April 27, 2017 in Uncategorized

We need your help! Bryan Anderson, Kiel Eigen and I gathered an awesome team and made a short film, Head Over Wheels, entered in the 2017 Easterseals Disability Film Challenge. It’s an annual film contest where filmmakers have just 48 hours to write, film, and produce a 5-minute short film addressing disability in a unique light. This year’s theme was a “family comedy.”

Now, we’re not filmmakers, but we’re a scrappy bunch and, as The Beatles put it, with a little help from our friends, we pulled off the seemingly impossible – and actually made and entered a short film!

The result is hilarious, and we’d love for you to watch it and share it via your own awesome social media. While we think you’ll love the film – it’s so us! – we’re judged on the number of online views, shares and media exposure it gets, so that’s where we need your help. If you’d be kind enough to spread the word and link for Head Over Wheels via your Twitter, blog, E-bulletin, that would be fab-u-lous!

The views, shares, and exposure are only counted through May 8th, so we need all the support we can get in the coming days. Thank you so much for helping us spread the word on this insanely cool project (and we really just want to win)!

Please watch and share Head Over Wheels!

By Mark E. Smith

In some of our lives, it just follows us. Even if we’re not personally struggling with such a harrowing path, some around us are. And, the challenge that has haunted many of us is in figuring who might be and how to address it?

A common myth is that those who speak of committing suicide never follow through with it. However, this isn’t true. Eight out of 10 people who commit suicide talked about it or gave clues. Anyone with the thought in his or her mind is at risk and such communication must be taken seriously. As one with a family history of suicide, as well as having lost others around me to suicide, I’ve experienced and witnessed its impact since the age of four. Every time it’s re-entered my life, including in the days leading to this writing, I’ve learned a bit more about the causes and possible solutions – as well as the heartbreak when nothing can prevent it.

Many don’t understand why anyone would commit suicide? After all, we all have problems or get down, but the thought of killing ourselves never enters our minds. We intrinsically know that tough times pass, and move forward. Why, then, can’t some people move forward, why is suicide an option at best, or the ultimate solution at worst?

It’s really easy – and too often wrongly done in our culture – to label those who commit suicide as depressed, psychotic, or even manipulative. However, suicide is nowhere near that simple. We know that medical issues like organic brain disease, thyroid issues, and reactions to medication can cause suicidal thoughts. To the positive, when these are properly diagnosed, treatments exist, saving lives.

Yet, what about those who don’t have diagnosable medical conditions? What drives them to suicide? Researchers have found that there’s a certain inexplicable mindset where some simply see “suicide as a problem-solver.”

As troubling as that mindset is, it’s fairly easy to understand. When most of us encounter a problem, we instinctively know it as temporary. It’s actually one of our innate survival skills as humans. For some, though, they have a sort of tunnel vision, where problems aren’t viewed as temporary, but as forever torturous, with no end. And, in that mindset, suicide seems the only effective way to stop the pain because they see no other solution.

So, how can we address those who might be at risk of suicide around us? Firstly, we have to be honest enough to know that we can’t always prevent a suicide. If someone is going to kill themselves, it can be inevitable. But, this doesn’t mean most situations are – and awareness is key. Most who are suicidal don’t truly want their lives to end – they just want the pain to end. The understanding, support, and hope that we offer can be their most important lifeline.

If we know someone who’s struggling, possibly having tunnel vision toward suicide as the only solution – and, again, it’s often hard to define – speaking of other solutions can sometimes help break a mindset of suicide as the only option. It’s not about telling someone to simply move on; rather, it’s about being empathetic and, through communication, hopefully helping one break a tunnel vision mindset of suicide as the only solution. And, being observant to changes in mood and behavior are often emblematic of a medical condition, and guiding individuals toward proper medical care saves thousands of lives each year.

In the end, each person’s path toward suicide is a harrowing one. When we’re fortunate, that path can be changed, an invaluable life saved. For others, suicide is their final act – and the rest of us are left with the heartbreak. Forever.

Author’s Note

Dedicated to Maddie and her parents’ courage to speak about Maddie’s life, love, and suicide. May her struggles save others. Maddie’s obituary 

By Mark E. Smith

Wouldn’t it be nice if our life paths were linear, evolving via steady forms of growth? Just imagine how easy life would be if, from health to relationships to finances and on and on, our lives simply got better and better, with no adversity or rough times in-between.

Now, we all know that life doesn’t work that way – life isn’t linear for anyone. However, what happens if we accept the way life really works? What happens then?

I’ve watched the trees, shrubs, and flowers on my property this past fall, winter, and now spring. And, nature’s reminded me of the course of our lives: often growth occurs from loss and regrowth – phases I’ve experienced in my own lifetime, where I’ve always come back stronger, with a more vibrant perspective.

When we experience disheartening change or loss, it’s understandable to feel like all good things have come to an end. It’s like watching my flowers die in the fall. Then, all often seems hopeless for a bit – I’m never getting that part of my life back. It’s like looking at a mountain of trees without leaves in winter, where all looks eternally bleak. However, soon spring arrives and growth returns, where the trees, shrubs, and flowers have a tremendous growth spurt and colors abound. Nature is magical in its seasons – and so are our lives.

Not unlike nature, our growth isn’t linear. Rather, there are pauses and breaks to it. Our health fluctuates, relationships ebb, and we have financial down times. Yet, if we have faith, knowing that life isn’t linear, but that change and loss soon enough welcome new growth, we can have a life that’s one of anew and success, where the past is stepping stones to an ever brighter future. Indeed, these are the seasons of life.

It must be noted that nature has one up on us in that once the right weather hits, spring comes on strong and growth abounds. The springs in our lives can be a little more tricky in that we must invite them with positive actions and thoughts. If we’re in the dumps emotionally – without hope – winter can last a long time. Therefore, it’s often up to us to be the weather changer – again, a little faith and optimism that spring is possible goes a long way.

Life isn’t linear, and we do find ourselves in dormant seasons. However, when we do, let us know that all seasons are temporary, so thrive in the sun and have faith that in even the most wintry of times, spring will return.

By Mark E. Smith

My entire adult life, I’ve tried to grow a full beard – alas, to no avail. I was of the ‘80s generation, where George Michael rocked that close-cropped beard, and nothing was more masculine than that, right? Yet, every time I tried to grow a full beard to trim George Michael style, it always came in thin, and after two weeks, I gave up and shaved. I just couldn’t grow a beard.

However, several weeks ago, at this writing, I found a video by chance on YouTube regarding growing beards, and that piqued my interest. After doing further research, I learned that there’s literal anatomical science to growing a beard. While some men have thicker or darker facial hair than others, the universal fact is, all of our facial hair grows at approximately the same rate – 0.011” per day – and it takes one month to grow a beard. Therefore, I’ve learned, it’s not my genetics that has prevented my growing a full beard, but my lack of patience.

Not unlike my previous beard-growing mindset, I recently heard a great saying: we overestimate what we can do in two weeks, and underestimate what we can do in two years. And, on both fronts, patience and effort play a role.

How many of us have wanted to snap our fingers and somehow magically change an aspect of our life? We don’t want to spend a year getting in shape, two years getting finances in order, three years building a relationship, or four years going back to school to advance our careers. Heck, I don’t want to wait a month to grow a beard! Rather, we just want change now!

Yet, change doesn’t happen at the snap of our fingers. Rather, it takes patience, effort, and time. We don’t get into shape overnight; it takes consistent exercise and training. We don’t get our finances in order based on one paycheck; it takes long-term discipline and budgeting. We don’t build or repair a relationship in an eve; it takes constant introspection, understanding, and communication. And, we don’t elevate our careers in a day; it takes an ongoing practice of professional growth.

However, when we have patience and apply the effort needed, not over two weeks, but, say, two years, we accomplish extraordinary growth and changes in our lives. I wish there was a magic pill that allowed change to occur overnight. However, there’s not. We are fortunate, though, to have a formula that gets us to our goals, aspirations, and dreams: patience + effort + time = success.

I’ve applied this principle to many aspects throughout my life, and it’s never failed. Some successes take longer than planned – I recall spending every day for close to a decade learning to tie my shoes based on my disability – but patience, effort and time always pay off.

Along the way, especially when we don’t see immediate results, we’re bound to get discouraged – and that’s a great sign. We only feel discouraged when we’re truly trying, so recognizing it as a hallmark that we’re making progress is vital to growth. Discouragement doesn’t need to be a roadblock, but a sign that we’re heading in the right direction. Let it lead us past!

Surely, growing a beard is trivial compared to the many profound areas that we struggle with in moving our lives forward. Yet, the core principles are the same. Let us have the strength to invest patience, effort and time into what we desire – and it is then that our dreams and goals become reality.

By Mark E. Smith

As one with cerebral palsy, using a wheelchair, I’ve been blessed. For two decades, I’ve built a career in the corporate business world. That career has allowed me to fly on hundreds of trips, from Hawaii to Spain, to many destinations in-between. I, like most business travelers, crisscross the friendly skies from event to event, working to support my wife and two daughters, pursuing the success most of us wish.

However, on March 27, 2017, on American Airlines, I saw a dramatically different side to the world of air travel that I’ve long known.

See, I’d finished five days working a trade show in Southern California, and as I waited to board American Airlines Flight 121, departing at 11:30 am, from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, all was typical. I had my ticket in hand, my wheelchair was tagged for cargo, and I was looking forward to a smooth flight home. Soon, I boarded, as did all of the other passengers, and as we sat buckled in, the Boeing 737 warmed up for departure.

Seated in row 24, my attention was called away from looking out the window, to a large group of American Airlines’ flight attendants, gate agents and ground crew – a sea of varying uniforms and two-way radio chatter – coming up the aisle. Without speaking to me, they asked the two women sitting next to me to move from their seats, explaining that they were removing me from the plane. I was immediately alarmed, not knowing what was going on, and asked what the issue was? Everyone in the American Airlines group paused and the entire plane was voiceless – just the mechanical hum of the 737.

I looked from one person to the next to the next, and all just stared. Finally, a flight attendant exclaimed, “This plane isn’t leaving without him!” and sat beside me. Her sudden burst of emotion confused me even more. I was then told that communication between the captain and ground crew instructed that he wouldn’t accept me and my wheelchair on the flight.

I was dumbfounded. American Airlines personnel were refusing to transport me because I am a person with a disability who uses a wheelchair. This scene was unquestionably a violation of a number of federal laws, and I was stunned that it was happening to me. However, in that moment, I kept all emotions in check, explaining that my wheelchair was, in fact, airline compliant, easily transported with a compacted size of merely 24” wide by 32” high, that it’s always easily loaded, that I often fly for business. The American Airlines group’s response was simply to continue removing me from the plane in a hurried fashion – Captain’s orders. I knew then that there was no reasoning with this dehumanizing situation. Compliance was clearly my only option, as is often the insidious nature of blatant discrimination.

As I scooted across the seats toward the crowd, having to transfer into a dolly-like chair so that they could roll me off of the plane, all of the other passengers watched, silent. Although many clearly heard that I was being removed because American Airlines didn’t want me and my wheelchair on the flight’s manifest, no one questioned why, in 2017, a businessman with a disability was being ejected from a plane? In that moment, I realized the gravity of it all: I was being stripped not just of my civil rights, but of my humanity. For the first time in my life, in the microcosm of that American Airlines Boeing 737, I was discarded as a human being – literally.

Think for a moment how surreal and painful it was for me in that cabin, where one minute I was a businessman traveling home to his wife and children, to the next moment of being displayed to rows of countless passengers as less of a human due to using a wheelchair. Imagine how emotionally breaking that is.

They rolled me down the aisle, off of the plane, and parked me on the gangway, totally immobile, strapped to a dolly chair, as the plane pulled away. I was discarded cargo.

As I sat there truly helpless, unable to move, not knowing how or when I’d get home – or even where my wheelchair was – I realized that I had to make an emotionally life-saving choice. I could allow American Airlines and its personnel to strip me of my dignity and degrade my humanity. Or, I could take control of my true being. Instead of expressing anger, I could maintain grace. Instead of experiencing anxiety, I could evoke strength. And, instead of external tears, I could hint an internal smile. And, with that, there I sat, deep in introspection, hearing the plane fly away, absorbing the fact that I, based on disability, was deemed less than human by American Airlines and its personnel.

As I waited in the unknown, I was comforted by words I heard long ago by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.

By Mark E. Smith

Profound life change can be hard and scary. However, do you know what’s even harder and scarier? Acknowledging it to ourselves and others. Yet, when we do, that’s when the most rewarding change occurs.

My wife and I were very fortunate to buy our “forever house.” We’d financially striven toward it, and finding it was a two-year process unto itself. It had to be the right house, at the right location, at the right price – and we nailed it. Then, due to my wheelchair use, we did some remodeling, and my wife made our beautiful home even more beautiful with her design skills. People were kind, and the compliments on our home flowed. By all accounts, we were blessed, and as one who didn’t come from much, I never took a moment of it for granted – I was privileged to own the big yellow house on the hill.

Based on renovations and moving, it was a long process getting into our new home. I was satisfied with the accessibility renovations – although slightly different from my previous home of 15 years – and was eager to move in. As moving day approached, I was as excited as anyone.
Once moved in, however, little felt right to me. Although I’d made accessibility renovations, aspects like using the bathroom was physically different and difficult. I had to learn new ways of doing necessities like using the commode and showering. I found myself working hard to learn and adapt to new ways of doing everyday tasks, and it was physically and emotionally taxing.

My wife was phenomenally supportive toward my physical struggles, but I wasn’t being open about my emotional ones. Even I wasn’t clear on what I was feeling because, on the one hand, I wasn’t longing for my previous house, but I was wondering if this struggle was necessary just to have our dream home? I wasn’t to the point of resentment, but close to it. Every time someone complimented our home, I’d smile and think to myself, This house may look beautiful to you, but it’s wearing on me…. It’s an isolating experience pretending all is perfect when it’s not.

Yet, my wife knew all was not perfect. One night as we got ready for bed, she asked if I thought the house was a mistake based on my struggles? I was open with her and explained that I didn’t think about going backward – that is, I didn’t miss the old house – but I was struggling to move forward. Physically and emotionally, I was struggling with all of the changes in my daily routines. The house and all was great, but I was battling through the process of a profound life change, as with the process of battling to relearn my physical independence in this new environment.

That realization – where I wasn’t struggling with the house, but the process of a profound life change, itself – was a wake-up call. I didn’t need to give the house time; rather, I needed to give myself time. See, that’s a key to a profound life change: we need to allow ourselves to admit that we’re struggling with it, and give ourselves leeway to move through the process. It’s too easy to blame something, or run away, giving up on a situation. Real fortitude comes when we admit we’re struggling with change, and give ourselves time to move through it, succeeding on the other side.

I’m not there yet – the commode transfers are still difficult and intimidating, to name one aspect – but adjusting to profound life changes take time. However, I’ve been through this process before and I’m ultimately comfortable with the intrinsic discomfort. I’m tackling the changes and related emotions as they come, and I’m so looking forward to the last part of this period of change in my life: Summer evenings on the porch, enjoying the breeze passing through the century-old evergreens….