Telling Our Daughters

By Mark E. Smith

As the father of a 14-year-old, I often find myself in an odd predicament. Whenever I show someone her picture, or she’s with me at an event, people graciously note how beautiful she is. And, while I sincerely appreciate such comments, thanking them, I never really say what I’m thinking: You really have no idea how beautiful she is.

See, as with all 14-year-old girls, my daughter’s beauty isn’t based on her exterior facade that conforms to a symmetrical face, slim stature, and flowing hair that pop-culture idolizes, but a beauty that’s within – that which is inherent within all young ladies. My daughter exhibits remarkable loyalty to her friends, where her sense of popularity at school isn’t about who wears what, or who knows whom, but that everyone is her friend, where she reaches out to others based on the quality of their characters, not so-called “status.” And, she exhibits a remarkable sense of empathy, where if one of her friend’s family is going through personal struggles – divorce, job loss, abuse – she finds ways that she can help comfort that friend in times of need.

My job, of course, as her father is not just to support my daughter, but to have very direct conversations with her about how proud I am of her, that she’s inherently beautiful, that I want to support her growth into a strong, independent, emotionally healthy young woman. Researchers have proven that a woman’s most formative years toward her lifelong self-esteem and identity are in her teens – and it’s a make-or-break time for fathers who will shape, for better or for worse, their daughters’ identities.

Yet, our obligation toward building life-inspiring self-esteem in young ladies in their teens can’t stop with our own daughters, but must be extended to others we meet. The fact is, when women enter their 20s with low self-esteem, it’s often too late for any of us to have an impact. We know that low self-esteem established in the teen years often manifests itself in a woman’s adult life through destructive relationships with men – from as subtle as being controlled and having little voice in a relationship, to as blatant as abuse – and through alarming forms of “self-medication” ranging from drugs and alcohol to promiscuity. The fact is, when women need outside stimuli to feel validated, as opposed to simply knowing their intrinsic strength and beauty from within, so much of their potential is lost, where no matter how much we strive to help such an adult woman recognize her inherent beauty, the emotional scars are usually so thick that it’s among life’s toughest hurdles to overcome.

It’s for these reasons why we should all reach out to young ladies in their formative teen years, where they’re still open to seeing their intrinsic beauty, where as mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, teachers and coaches, we should never pass on showing a teen her intrinsic beauty while we still have the opportunity to truly make a difference with strikingly simple but vital words of encouragement.

As a father himself, Rene Szalay of Ki Mobility, recently presented me with a remarkable opportunity to hopefully make a difference in a young lady’s life. I first met Rene 22 years ago at an adaptive sports camp in Chico, California. I graduated high school a few weeks before the camp, so it was my first real foray into the “wheelchair world.” Rene, however, was four years older than me, and a literal star in the wheelchair tennis world. At the camp, I witnessed how the teens looked up to Rene, and I realized the impact that we can each have on the young people around us – it was a powerful lesson in inspiration. For the following 22 years, I never crossed paths with Rene again; yet, his presence at that camp stuck with me.

Recently, while working an Abilities Expo, I joined fellow mobility industry colleagues after hours – everyone usually hangs out together regardless of our companies and roles – and Rene was among this particular group, gracious enough to note that he is a bit of a fan of my work. As I’m typically wound a bit over-the-top, I ended up horsing around with the group, and didn’t get a chance to see if Rene remembered Chico, 22 years earlier? However, the following day, true to Rene’s character that I recalled, he showed up at my booth with a 14-year-old young lady and her mother, noting that they really should speak with me. I had no idea what it was about, but I know that guys like Rene and I put people before products, and if he left his booth to bring the daughter and mother to my booth, it probably wasn’t product-related.

The young lady had cerebral palsy, and used a manual wheelchair. In typical 40-year-old-dad fashion, I asked her what her favorite subjects in school were and such – the cliché questions we use to build some rapport. However, eventually what came out was that she was struggling socially in school, that she didn’t feel like she fit in as the only one with a disability among her classmates. I told her a bit about my being the lone student with a disability when I was her age, and how my own daughter and her peers likewise struggle with questions of identity, that other young ladies feel just as insecure, but some just hide it better than others (adults are no exception at that, either!). Yet, what I mostly discussed with her was who she really was, loving Shakespeare and classical music – amazing for a 14-year-old. And, as I told her, I was in awe of her intellect and wisdom, that beyond her adorable appearance – complete with pink highlighted bangs on her blond hair – her inherent beauty shined, that there was no doubt that she would go on to do great things. “Concentrate on developing who you truly are, avoiding the no-win game of trying to fit a made-up social mold,” I shared. “Being exactly like everyone else in life gets us no where – we just blend into a crowd, or live to other people’s bland standards. But, being yourself, where your unique gifts and beauty shines, is where you thrive in the world. You are beautiful, just as everyone is in their unique ways, and your intellect and wisdom are going to propel you to an amazing, impacting life. …It only gets better from here.”

I’m known for pulling people aside and having extremely candid conversations, where I’m not bashful about laying the cards on the table if I see someone struggling in emotional pain or going down destructive paths, where I’ll share that there are healthy ways to get one’s life back on track. Again, though, with adults, such talks usually have little effect beyond the moment because one person’s caring can’t overcome the other person’s lifetime of pain – serious work must be done, and few adults have the capacity, tools, and will to shift their lives (and when it is done to a meaningful level – ridding dysfunctional behaviors – formal counseling is typically involved).

However, we know that the door is still wide open on teenagers, where adult mentors can show a 14-year-old young lady her inherent beauty and it truly registers. If you have a young lady in your life, don’t pass on those moments that emphasize her inherent beauty, where you help polish the strengths that she’ll use to live a healthy, happy, impacting life.

Right-Brain Thinking

By Mark E. Smith

When considering the human brain, most picture a single, sponge-like structure, all within a protective housing – the cranium – that’s little more than the size of a melon.

However, what many don’t realize is that the brain isn’t singular, but literally plural – that is, two distinctly separate halves (known as the left and right hemispheres), that communicate with each other to the totality of 1,000 trillion synaptic connections, but, in fact, think very differently from one another. And, when we understand how the two hemispheres of our brain think – that is, the very distinct lateralization of brain function – we better understand how we process events and live our lives, disability and all.

The left hemisphere is our memory bank, you might say. It thinks in a linear, analytical fashion, putting together the past and imagining the future to form methodical thoughts. When we dwell on the past or ponder the future, it’s our left hemisphere at work.

To the contrary, the right hemisphere doesn’t concern itself much with the past or the future, but is about the present, the here and now, the inspired moments in our lives (though, there is evidence that clinical depression is based on a hyperactive right hemisphere that distorts the way the mind intakes information, inherently turning to pessimistic, negative, nonconstructive thinking styles). When we are caught up in a moment, where our sole focus is what’s happening in the present, our right hemisphere is in affect.

In many ways, then, our left hemisphere is the weight of the world on us, with all of our past and future concerns flying around in trillions of stress-filled synaptic connections, whereas our right hemisphere is just glad to be here, taking in the moment.

When it comes to disability – and much of life, really – the right hemisphere is truly what we should primarily run on, the single cylinder that’s about the here and now. After all, when we hear of others’ discouragement with disability and life, so much of it is based on pain of the past, and fear of the future – it’s the left hemisphere tying one’s stomach in knots. Therefore, shifting from left-brain thinking to right-brain thinking frees us of many of the emotional burdens holding us back in life, keeping us centered and inspired in the present.

Interestingly, most clinical treatment of psychological or emotional trauma (both common elements in disability experience, as well), strives to move us from holding on and constantly reliving the past, to truly living in the present, where the original trauma no longer impacts our daily lives. That is, moving beyond trauma involves a shift from left-brain to right-brain thinking, where we’re not haunted by the past or dreading the future, but truly living in the present – our lives liberated, all baggage left at the door.

And, we do obtain striking clarity and room to breathe when we shift to right-brain thinking, where with the exception of being in the midst of a freak accident or trauma in the immediate, life in the present is a whole lot more relevant and comfortable than dwelling on the past or fearing the future.

Now, the fact is, it is hard for us as humans to make the shift from left-brain to right-brain thinking, especially when we’ve experienced trauma. We’re statistically prone to left-brain thinking after having experienced many forms of trauma, where we seek left-hemisphere life paths that lead us to dysfunctional behavior (a clinical basis of “post traumatic stress disorders,”), that causes us to indirectly relive the trauma over and over. We know that women who were abused as children are more likely to be in abusive spousal relationships as adults. We know that men who had alcoholic fathers are far more likely to be alcoholics as adults. And, we know that many with disabilities can get caught up dwelling on the origin and impact of their conditions or illnesses, frozen in time. In plain language, although we know that the traumas in our pasts are over, our left-brain thinking keeps us stuck reliving the experience – often literally recreating it through life choices.

The true magic of shifting to right-brain thinking, however, is that it proves that our traumatic pasts can be just that – our pasts – having little effect on our present (where distressing memories are essentially updated with more relevant thoughts in the here and now). In my late teens and early 20s, I was haunted by my father’s having walked out on my brother and me when we were kids, where I desperately wanted answers – my left-brain thinking was torturing me. However, the birth of my daughter was a wake-up call, where in a very cognizant way, I recognized that I had to shift from my left-brain anxiety about not having a father, to my right-brain focus of being a father. And, it was at that moment – where I made the decision to stop living in the past, and focus on the present – that my life changed, that a weight was lifted from my shoulders. My father died without any sort of closure for me – there wasn’t the happy ending or clear-cut answers I’d long wished. However, I was – and remain – at peace with that because my adult life isn’t about my father, but is wholly about my being a father, where my right brain is in full affect, having cherished every day of the past 14 years with my daughter.

The question as a whole, though, remains: How do people realistically shift from left-brain, stress-filled thinking to right-brain, content-in-the-moment thinking? After all, many of our careers and lives demand that we live very left-brain lives, where reminders of the past and objectives for the future are intrinsic to our lives. And, in cases of trauma like an accident that’s caused disability, the disability in itself can be a constant trigger, reminding us of the past or raising questions for the future.

Researchers know that right-brain thinking is both kinetic and holistic – it’s what’s fully engaging our bodies and minds at this moment. The reason why adrenalin-based activities like exercise or sports are so stress-relieving is because they’re right-brain oriented – you’re not concerned about the past or future when you’re simply trying to bench press one more rep. Similarly, creative endeavors require right-brain thinking – as I write this, I can’t be plagued by the past or future, as I’m in this moment, creating this sentence. Therefore, finding areas in our lives that inherently require using our right brain – simply listening to music is a great one! – are invaluable toward relieving stress, and keeping us in the present.

In my own life, where my career is left-brain based – where I can often feel like everyone’s mobility issues are on my shoulders, where the emails and such never stop – I’ve evolved aspects of my life toward right-brain activities, where they naturally balance my life. My daughter and dogs are constant sources of right-brain, in-the-moment focus, as is working out, boating, and reading. As one living in a left-brain world, so to speak, I’m able to find great reward and relief in the right-brain parts of my life.

Indeed, we can hold on to that left-brain thinking, where its catalog of memories – especially the traumatic – fill our lives with anxiety, fear, and destructive paths, leading us no where fast. Yet, we’re presented with a miracle of the mind, where our capacity to use right-brain thinking liberates us from the past, and places us in the present, where we don’t just survive, but thrive.

Listen to your right brain, where the past truly is the past, and the present has all the potential to be whatever you make it. After all, living in the here and now, making the most of this day, is the most rewarding place to be.

When Disability Becomes Humility

By Mark E. Smith

In Buddhism, humility is associated with being liberated from any suffering or anguish in life. In Christianity, humility is defined as recognizing one’s own defects, and holding a humble opinion of oneself. And, in Islam, humility translates to surrender.

Indeed, virtually all of the world’s religions feature humility as an ultimate goal of mankind, and its essence is best defined by Chan (Zen) Master Li Yuansong: “Enlightenment can come only after humility – the wisdom of realizing one’s own ignorance, insignificance, and lowliness, without which one cannot see the truth.”

Not unlike world religion, disability also contains humility as an ultimate form of being, where we recognize our limitations not with resentment, but with gratitude. And, it’s that gratitude – our humility – that allows us to have grounded perspectives in life regarding what’s truly important, where life can prove to be more about our connections with others, and less about status or materialism or physicality.

At the core of humility is humbleness, and few plights in life are more humbling than living with a severe disability. While those with disabilities are not precluded from achieving the trappings of the ego – recognition, success, wealth, and so on – disability is remarkably grounding for many, far canceling out any pretentiousness in most cases. For example, one may be very blessed with a well-paying career and success, but that doesn’t alter the reality that having to rely on others for physical care is a universally humbling experience.

However, the humbling realities of disability don’t have to be troubling as some express, but can actually be liberating, increasing our capacity to connect with others, our humility. Again, rooted within humility is the wisdom that none of us are of ultimate strength or infallibility, but that we all have weaknesses and needs. Put simply, disability, by nature, allows us to inescapably see our weaknesses – which is actually a strength – giving us the humility to respect the plights of others beyond our own challenges.

I was recently working the Abilities Expo in downtown Los Angeles, and had a wonderful walk each morning – about a mile and a half – from my hotel to the convention center. The weather was beautiful, so it was a refreshing start to my long days by racing my power wheelchair past the skyscrapers of downtown, weaving my way through crowds of commuters on foot and darting across hectic, traffic-filled intersections.

One morning, I came upon a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk. He especially stood out to me because he was exceptionally dirty, with no possessions, sleeping on the bare concrete – a contrast to the many other homeless that I saw who had sleeping bags and shopping carts full of clothing and such. With so much going on – racing to a trade show, city traffic buzzing around me – his presence literally brought my world to a halt.

With time to spare, I went in the coffee shop around the corner, bought two breakfast sandwiches, two cartons of orange juice, and grabbed a straw. I then returned to the homeless gentleman, waking him up, offering him breakfast. He didn’t say much, but he accepted the breakfast sandwich and juice.

In my shirt and tie, I sat there with him, carefully eating my breakfast sandwich, as not to spill on my clothes. I didn’t, however, open my juice because it was beyond my dexterity – I reckoned I’d save it until one of my colleagues at the convention center could open it for me.

We sat there silently eating – folks passing us on the sidewalk – when, suddenly, the homeless gentleman took my orange juice carton and straw off of my lap, opened my juice, put the straw in, and observantly gave me sips on queue, following my bites.

What struck me was the remarkable humility in the gentleman. Although he was more down on his luck than arguably anyone in Los Angeles – and who knows how or why? – he still had the humility to recognize my needs, graciously serving me my orange juice when I could not. No, I can’t entirely explain why I stopped in my tracks that morning to have breakfast with that gentleman, but I know that it fit somewhere in my disability-based understanding that my plight in life is no more worthy than anyone else’s, that if I was to have breakfast, so should the gentleman sleeping on the sidewalk. However, what truly inspired me was that despite the gentleman’s seeming needs, he recognized mine in accordance with his own via the very nurturing act of helping me with my juice, words unspoken.

It’s easy to think we’re above others based on status, and it’s even easier to think we’re beneath others based on our seeming weaknesses, including the humbling aspects of disability. And, yet, it seems so hard for many to simply realize that we all share a common humanity, where shared humility brings us together from all walks of life, right down to a guy with cerebral palsy having breakfast with a homeless gentleman on a sidewalk, where both find gratitude in the challenges of life where others may not.

Prepared for Discrimination Disasters

By Mark E. Smith

If you live in a northern climate where it snows each winter, have you ever noticed that there’s a segment of the population that is seemingly shocked every time it snows – as if they have amnesia from the last 60 winters they’ve lived through? People actually stockpile bread and milk the day before each forecasted storm, as if this mysterious thing called snow might usher in an apocalypse. I’ve lived in snow country for 10 years, and what I’ve learned is pretty darn elementary: It snows throughout every winter – there’s no surprise or mystery to it. I know what to expect, I’m prepared for it, and I go about my life with rationality when it occurs.

Many people address ignorance and discrimination the same way some northerners address snow: They’re shocked every time it happens. Yet, we all know that ignorance and discrimination occurs around us – albeit more readily to those of us of diversity than others – so why are we so shocked and unprepared when we encounter it?

Of course, none of us wish to encounter ignorance or discrimination – it hurts and it disconnects us from our sense of belonging, unjustly questioning the completeness of our humanity – and we simply don’t want to even think of such experiences, as it’s scary and painful. Studies in psychology prove that we are far more subconsciously adept at avoiding pain than toward addressing any other emotion. Therefore, we block the foreseen potential pain of facing ignorance or discrimination from our daily awareness as a sort of self-preservation mechanism. For example, if we thought that everywhere we went was a potential for facing ignorance and discrimination, we might never leave the house. To the contrary, we most often block such realistic potential from our minds – after all, we can encounter ignorance and discrimination in the world around us – and, in a sort of denial, we assume that we’re universally going to be treated with equality and legality. Because of this, when we’re treated with ignorance and discrimination, we’re caught by surprise, most often shocked and horrified – and, worst of all, unprepared to address it.

However, I’ve learned that there’s tremendous merit to living with an awareness that we may be treated with ignorance and discrimination at virtually any time. After all, we know that ignorance and discrimination can and does occur – it’s why we have civil rights legislation, including the ADA – so why not live with a preparedness toward addressing it when encountered?

Indeed, acknowledging the existence of ignorance and discrimination – not denying it! – is a key to solving it. Being shocked by it dramatically reduces our ability to address it, and addressing it is vital, as we don’t want it occurring to the next person. When we’re shocked by ignorance and discrimination, we’re caught off guard, and don’t know how to react. Yet, when we’re prepared for it, we know exactly what to do.

A friend of mine went for a job interview for an inside sales position at a major Internet retailer. He’s a paraplegic, with full use of his upper body, so his disability had absolutely no bearing on his ability to perform the job, which required sitting in a cubical, using a computer and phone. When arriving for the interview, the interviewer took one look at his using a wheelchair and said, “Wow, are you going to be able to get down these halls OK?”

My friend was prepared in life for facing ignorance and discrimination at times, and although he wasn’t looking for trouble, his instincts told him when it was on its way. While others with disabilities may have dismissed the interviewer’s initial comment, not wanting to think that they were about to face ignorance or discrimination, my friend recognized that comment as a sign that the interview might not be performed as fairly as most would hope.

In the interview room, my friend casually pulled out a pen and pad, and took notes, summarizing the interview as it went. Every time the interviewer directly asked about his disability – which is illegal – my friend was especially careful to note the details, right down to the time. Again, my friend wasn’t looking for trouble, but he also wasn’t shocked or in denial of ignorance and discrimination. And, as he encountered it during that interview, he knew exactly what to do: Play it cool, document it, and legally address it later.

As you might presume, my friend didn’t get the job, one that he was qualified for. But, the fact that he documented that around 10 minutes of the 15 minute interview involved the interviewer’s probing questions about my friend’s disability resulted in the interviewer being fired, disability awareness training throughout the company, and a settlement for my friend. No, we don’t know whether the company has totally changed its ways, but my friend’s preparedness toward facing ignorance and discrimination definitely had some positive outcomes.

One fundamental technique that my friend used was not to be shocked by ignorance and discrimination, but to be wise toward it. See, when we’re shocked, we’re either motionless or overreacting, neither of which is the best tact. Being motionless does us no good because we’re not collecting the information needed to later address the issue, and confronting the perpetrator doesn’t work, either, because if the perpetrator had proper judgment to begin with, he or she wouldn’t engage in such behavior. Rather, when prepared for ignorance and discrimination, we instinctively know to take in vital information, minimize emotion, and save seeking resolution for the proper channels.

We want to believe that we live in a just society, one of equality for all. And, based on the laws, we do live in a just society. However, people and companies don’t always follow the laws, they don’t always treat everyone with equality. In this way, we shouldn’t live in fear of facing ignorance and discrimination – or, worse yet, deny its existence – but we should recognize its potential to occur, and be prepared when it does, handling it with a level of composure and dignity that is sure to bring positive results no matter how unjustly we’re treated.

Fool’s Gold

By Mark E. Smith

I saw an on-line correspondence by someone I’ve met in-person, and the individual was describing “their” own disability. What caught my attention was that the individual’s description of their disability seemed exaggerated beyond belief. I was so struck by the individual’s seemingly exaggeration of their disability that I called a mutual acquaintance who confirmed that, indeed, the description was dramatically exaggerated – leaving us both wondering why the individual would make their disability out to be far more physically severe than it actually was? I mean, if one were a paraplegic with full use of one’s arms, why would one clearly lead others to believe that one was a quadriplegic with virtually no use of one’s arms?

Of course, in the spectrum of disability, this wasn’t the first time that I’ve witnessed someone exaggerate the physical facts of one’s disability, describing one’s disability as medically far more severe than it truly is. And, I’m always left with the question, Why do some wish to make themselves out to seem more physically disabled than they are? To be really blunt, How dysfunctional do you have to be to seemingly wish to be more disabled among your peers than you really are?

When I was working at a college years ago, a colleague of mine and I were sitting in my office one evening talking about minority-based literature. And, specifically, we discussed how there is a “hierarchy of hardship” in western culture, where the tougher one’s plight in life, the more respect one earns from others. In today’s world, we see this in the rap music industry, where street thugs like 50 Cent, who began dealing drugs at age 12, are idolized with “street cred” in their music careers, whereas rapper, Rick Ross, lost much of his following when it came out that contrary to his “thug-filled” lyrics, he’d actually worked as a prison corrections officer. Likewise, as my colleague and I discussed, there is a certain “street cred” to disability, where the bigger your physical challenges, the higher up in the disability hierarchy you may be seen.

In this way, there is some merit to the thought that those who exaggerate their disabilities are looking to up their street cred within the disability community, so to speak. However, there’s also a much deeper, self-defeating aspect to those who exaggerate the extent of their physical disabilities: They’re trying to convince themselves of reasons why they’re struggling with self-acceptance and a lack of success in life.

Unfortunately, due to remaining stereotypes, severity of disability still gets us off of the hook in many parts of life. The reason why the media still makes a big deal about a student with a severe disability graduating college, for example, is because our culture places lower expectations on those with disabilities – and, as it works, the more severe the disability, the lower the expectations. If you have a severe disability and you succeed, you’re heroic; but, if you have a sever disability and do nothing, that’s fine, as well – after all, those with disabilities can’t be expected to live up to mainstream standards, as their plights are already harrowing enough, or so implies mainstream stereotypes.

Now, with that principle in mind, if you’re one with a disability who’s struggling with self-acceptance and not willing to put forth extreme efforts to succeed, what’s the easiest way to justify your complacent path in life?

By convincing yourself that you’re far more disabled than you really are, of course! Really, it’s a brilliant – albeit, self-defeating – strategy that actually works. If you can convince yourself – and, ideally, those close to you who don’t know any better, as with family members – that you’re too disabled to have a healthy emotional life, attend college, work, or care for yourself, then you’re off of the hook. All shame is removed from the equation because, as you’ve convinced yourself, you’re a victim in all this – that is, the severity of your disability.

However, here are the two fatal flaws when you invest in such a dysfunctional coping mechanism: Firstly, your peers with disabilities label you as a fool who no one takes seriously, and, secondly, convincing yourself that you’re more severely disabled than you are ruins your life!

You might get by convincing family, friends, and the mainstream that your disability is the worst fate on Earth (because they can still be manipulated). But, it never flies within the disability community, where those with truly the most severe disabilities will look at you and laugh, rolling away, writing you off as a “tool.” I’ve seen it countless times, where there are, say, a table full of successful individuals with medically-defined severe disabilities, and someone of notably less physical severity will join the party, and start going on and on about how disabled he or she is, only to have all others label it as a pathetic attempt for attention or as a scapegoat for shortcomings in life compared to others.

I was sitting in a hotel lounge after working an Abilities Expo once, and a paraplegic was at our table going on and on about how disabled he was, how the world was doing him wrong. With us was a young lady with muscular dystrophy, on a ventilator, with no use of her arms, and she had a career as a social worker. As the gentleman went on and on about how terrible his life was with a disability, the young lady suddenly said, “I’ll bet you $5 that you can’t pick up that glass that’s in front of you.”

The gentleman didn’t think twice, simply picking up the glass. The young lady smiled, and said, “Man, when you can pick up a glass, you’re right, you must have it tougher than many of us in life. Reach in my backpack, and grab $5 out of my wallet – you clearly need it more than the rest of us.”

Again, you can exaggerate your disability in culture at large, but it will make you a fool among your peers with disabilities.

Nevertheless, in the grand scheme of life, looking foolish among peers isn’t nearly as consequential as convincing yourself that disability effects your life more than it should. The minute that you create any false limitations in your life, the only one that’s ultimately harmed is you. Make every excuse in the world why your life is a horrible plight – including exaggerating disability – but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re the one removing yourself from the game, you’re dictating your own limitations toward success.

So, if you find yourself feeling like your disability is the worst plight ever, making it more severe than it is, how do you change that self-destructive mindset?

The answer is strikingly simple: Stop dwelling on your disability, and start focusing on your abilities. Sure, it takes accountability, where you say, I’m responsible for the outcomes in my life, and my disability doesn’t void my remaining abilities, whatever they may be. Value your abilities, and use them to their fullest – never complaining, but always thankful – and your life will go in directions that you never dreamed.

Of course, there’s never any thought among my successful friends as to who has the severest physical disability. Sure, we all have varying degrees of physical disabilities, where a clinical observation might deem quadriplegia more severe than a below-the-knee amputation. However, when we’re each focused on living life to our fullest potentials, no one is more or less disabled than the next person – we’re all simply on a level playing field, living our best.

Hot Mess

By Mark E. Smith

So, I’m drinking at Tao in Las Vegas, parked in my power chair sideways against the bar, so I can sip my vodka and Red Bull through a straw. Whoopi Goldberg and Rod Stewart are with me – no, not the real Whoopi and Rod, but impersonators.

Prior to several hours ago, none of us knew each other. My plan was to go to Vegas alone as an adventure, but then my buddy was to meet me there. However, as the world is meant to be I suppose, my buddy opted not to meet me after all, leaving me on my own in Vegas for four days. So, after checking into my hotel, I headed to Tao – a top Vegas club that’s hard to get into unless you’re a hot chick, a dude with a hot chick, or a celeb – and I was ushered right in, skirting the line of smoking hot chicks and their steroid-strutting dudes, not even a cover charge for me.

What I’ve learned is that as a guy with a disability, using a power chair, in a suit and tie, with a big smile and gregarious personality, I can go into virtually any scene and immediately find great conversation – or have it find me. A lone guy at a bar is typically seen as creepy, where if he says hi to people walking by, they’re probably going to keep on walking – and, they certainly won’t approach him. However, I find that the novelty of my disability and inherently nonthreatening nature – along with a super-outgoing personality – really attracts people, where I can very quickly build rapport, becoming immediately engaged in great conversations, making fast friends, where even if I just park somewhere, someone will ultimately come up and start a conversation. In these ways, I get by very well, able to get into any club, quickly fitting into the scene. So, I end up in Tao within hours of landing in Vegas, surrounded by barely-dressed super-model type chicks and buffed bozos – rock-starring it on my own, one might say.

Now, vodka and Red Bull isn’t my drink of choice – that would be Southern Comfort, straight, by the double-shot. However, unbeknown to me when booking the trip, I picked spring break week, when all of the mid- and southwest college kids flock to Vegas. And, in a brilliant – and deviant – marketing ploy, Red Bull is the official sponsor, where at virtually any bar or club for the week, one can get a house vodka and Red Bull mixer for $6, whereas a double shot of Southern Comfort averages $15, so I opted to drink on the cheap (plus, being alone and looking to meet people, I had no interest in getting hammered drunk, but remaining sober while socially sipping a single drink much of the night).

So, I’m sipping my cheap drink at Tao, checking out the countless chicks who, on average, must be 19 years younger than me, when Whoopi Goldberg walks up and joins me at the bar. I immediately comment that she’s the striking image of Oprah, and she laughs – and we get to chatting. It turns out that she is, of course, Berndottea, a Whoopi Goldberg impersonator, complete with SAG card and all. However, the drunk college kids don’t know any better, so I’m in theory sitting at the bar with Whoopi Goldberg, with everyone wanting to take pictures with Whoopi.

And, then in walks Rod Stewart. No, not the real Rod Stewart, but Clyde, a chef who’s been in Vegas for seven months, and just so happens to be an exact image of a younger Rod Stewart, ’80s vintage, dressing the part and teasing his hair, no less. He immediately joins Bernodettae and me, likely because we’re a fitting lot, a bit of character and age to us compared to the young, hot bodies who fill the club with alcohol-fueled hormones running wild.

Sipping my vodka and Red Bull, I swap life stories with Bernodettae and Clyde, who are among the sincerest, kindest folks I’ve met, and we’re constantly interrupted by party-seekers who only see Whoopi, Rod, and a guy in a wheelchair at the bar – a spectacle that draws a non-stop crowd.

With the night in full swing, I end up with a drunk chick next to me, who knocks my drink off of the bar, spilling it all over my power chair, and she immediately apologizes, telling me that she’ll make it up to me. With all watching, she kisses me on the cheek, takes my hand, and gently slides it up her top, placing it on her bare breast. This, however, is little consolation to me, as having to clean vodka and Red Bull out of every crack of my power chair and losing my $6 drink is no price to pay to feel a chick’s boob – been there, done that, don’t care, over it – so while the surrealism of having my hand up a chick’s top with Whoopie Goldberg and Rod Stewart watching me isn’t lost in the moment, I’m really just perturbed that this drunk chick spilled my drink all over my power chair. Boobs are just boobs – they’re everywhere. It’s my custom-finished, carbon fiber power chair that I care about!

With my hand still on her breast, I look up and realize that she’s wearing a tiara that says, Bachelorette. I pull my hand out of her top, and ask loudly, “Can I get your fiancé’s phone number?”

“Why?” she asks.

“I want to tell him not to marry a hot mess like you,” I say.

Without hesitation or even a blink, she hauls off and slaps me across the face – hard. And, people grab her, pulling her into the crowd, away from me.

I turn to the bartender like, Did you see that?, and the bartender has already served me up a fresh drink, on the house.

Rod Stewart walks around and puts his arm around me.

“You know, Mark,” Rod says, “I’ve put my hands on women’s breasts and been slapped, but never have I had a woman place my hand on her own breast, then slap me for it. You’re a champ in my book.”

“Welcome to Vegas, Marko!” Whoopi says, holding up her drink.

It’s The One’s We Reach

By Mark E. Smith

No reputable drug and alcohol recovery program will publish its success rate, namely because industry wide, success rates are disturbingly low – in the 5% range. That is, approximately 95% of in-patients eventually relapse.

With such a low success rate, one might conclude that recovery programs don’t work. But, they do – for those who make an effort to change their own lives. Recovery programs are a tool for those who are dedicated to the process, where people who help themselves will succeed, and those who continue poor behaviors, fail.

One has to admire recovery counselors. I mean, imagine investing your heart and soul in striving to help many, where 95% of your efforts fail. At what point do you simply give up, noting that if people won’t help themselves, why should you strive to help them?

The answer is simple – if you can positively change the lives of only 5% of those you interact with, that’s a profound impact on others. However, accepting the realization that 95% of your efforts won’t succeed takes some understanding, the understanding that you can’t help everyone, but you can make an admirable attempt and help some. Your true success is in your making the effort, regardless of the outcome.

Most of us have friends, acquaintances, and family members who are living troubled lives on some level, where a simple change in behavior could dramatically improve their lives. And, when we’re at our best, we step in, striving to offer words of wisdom and encouragement. No, we don’t preach or lecture, but simply share that life doesn’t have to be so hard.

I had the privilege of sitting down with a young woman in her 20s, whose life is a mess – severe abandonment issues from a troubled family, engaging in promiscuity, alcoholic, and an overall emotional train wreck. But, as I explained to her, none of it has to be. By investing in herself, as with entering counseling and truly putting effort into addressing the negatives in her life, she could see real changes in real time.

I asked her if anyone had ever had such a conversation with her, and she said, no. And, I explained to her that I’ve overcome challenges in my own life, many with the help of others, and I’d be willing to assist in her getting her life on track if she felt that I could help in some way.

Unfortunately, not only didn’t she take me up on my offer to support her move toward positive efforts, but her life continues escalating in very troubling directions. She has every capacity to change – with effort, of course – but no seeming will to do so. In all fairness, though, when all one’s ever known is dysfunctional behavior, getting off of that path takes a monumental shift in mindset, often with a Herculean effort behind it. Yet, it is possible – and vital if one’s going to redirect one’s life.

In my several-hour conversation with her, I believe that she was extremely candid with me, but has no wish to get out of the rough waters she’s in – it’s the behavior she knows, her strikingly uncomfortable “comfort zone,” and she’s not changing it. So, considering her outlook, did I waste my time in reaching out to her?

Not at all. Again, when we strive to help others, our success is in the effort, not the outcome. We can be voices of reason and make sincere attempts to connect with others, but if they’re not receptive or willing to help themselves, at least we made the attempt.

In the disability realm, this subject constantly comes up, where family members ask, How can I help my loved one not be defeated by disability?

The fact is, some are defeated by disability, giving up on life, where their families want to help. Still, the process goes back to the adage that you can only help one who wishes to help oneself. You can offer all of the support in the world, but if one refuses change, there’s nothing you can do. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make an attempt to help, but don’t feel like you’ve failed if the individual doesn’t respond. You can wish with all your might that your loved one with a disability gets his or her life on track; however, if he or she refuses to take the lead in the process, you should have a clear conscience, where your effort was commendable regardless of the outcome. If you want to enroll in community college, we’ll gladly pay the tuition. However, if you chose to spend the rest of your life uneducated, unemployed, and living in public housing, with a victim mentality toward your disability, we’ll be greatly disappointed, but your failure won’t be our responsibility in any way. …It’s this matter-of-fact approach that families must take.

Of course, reaching out to others is a risk, where the outcome most often isn’t what we wish – few people are willing to leave their comfort zones (again, as inherently dysfunctional as their “comfort zones” can be), and move their lives in healthier directions. And, for those of us who have striven to face challenges, and see the amazing potential in each individual’s life, it can be heart wrenching when we reach out to others in support, only to have them reject their own potentials. There’s a sense of loss when we know someone who could transform his or her life in a seeming instant – and is presented with the opportunity! – but he or she chooses to stay on a bleak course.

Still, we must recognize the 5% rule, that even if 95% of our efforts inspire no change in others, our consistent efforts to put ourselves on the line by reaching out to others will impact someone, somewhere, sometime – and that’s where the value resides in our efforts. Let us strive to reach out to everyone, don’t be discouraged when our efforts aren’t valued by others, and let us feel privileged to witness the positive changes and growth in the 5% of of sincere individuals bettering themselves.