Posts Tagged ‘disability’

By Mark E. Smith

Words are just that – words. While they have formal definitions, the way we interpret and experience words vary greatly. Trust and intimacy are two such words that, despite formal definition, have dramatically different connotations and practices in our relationships.

On the surface, most see trust in a relationship as intertwined with commitment, meaning your partner isn’t going to betray you. Similarly, intimacy generally means closeness, both emotionally and physically. However, while most couples have built relationships on these core principles for countless generations, the scope of what trust and intimacy mean within relationships is dramatically changing in our culture as we speak.

See, baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are now between 53 and 71, to the tune of 76 million, the largest aging population in US history. Of course, there are a lot of aspects to the baby boomer aging population, but one that is especially intriguing is the shift couples are having to make when it comes to trust and intimacy. I’m not a baby boomer myself, but as a married man with a disability, I have an understanding of what many aging couples are facing, where trust and intimacy are taking on deeper, more complex meanings within relationships based on changing abilities.

The reality is, while baby boomers are demonstrating living longer than their parents’ generation, it means facing such realities as later-in-life illnesses and debilitating medical conditions. As a result, couples are finding themselves in the circumstance of one spouse caring for the other – and it’s a complex transition. Trust and intimacy, then, become a whole different experience from what a couple once knew.

In many situations, the individual needing caregiving must trust enough to feel safe in sharing vulnerabilities with his or her spouse – and that can be a harrowing leap of faith. It may have been that trust was once about fidelity or finances, whereas now it’s about your spouse helping you use the commode or bathe. That’s a big leap in trust for many. Similarly, the caregiving spouse must trust that his or her spouse is comfortable in receiving help.

On the intimacy side, it can likewise be a difficult transition. Imagine being a modest person, where your spouse must now assist you in very private living skills, such as bathing. Intimacy takes on a whole new meaning. It requires a deep understanding of each other’s emotions given the circumstance, and that can be tricky.

Interestingly, when couples are able to expand their scopes of trust and intimacy to include illness, disability, and caregiving, it can bring them ultimately closer together. The key I’ve witnessed, though, is that long-standing routines of life must remain in order to keep perspective and romance within the relationship. And, depending on the circumstance, that can be hard to do (and sometimes impossible). My wife helps me considerably in the mornings and eves, but the bulk of our life is that of a 40-something couple with children moving through life. In our case, while my disability and her caregiving aren’t the ideal, we have evolved and expanded our scope of trust and intimacy, and it adds to our unity as a couple. Put simply, we’ve learned what we can work through together – and that’s empowering to all aspects of our marriage.

Such circumstances are an increasing part of relationships within our culture as it ages, and I hope couples are able to navigate these new waters in ways that expand trust and intimacy rather than erode it. Life is about change and growth – and fortunate couples evolve together, regardless of what life sends their way.

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….

In memory of Dr. Brett Weber, who lived every day like it was Saint Patrick's Day (except for the beer!)

In memory of Dr. Brett Weber, who lived every day like it was Saint Patrick’s Day (except for the beer!)

By Mark E. Smith

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as though you will live forever.”

If today were your last day on Earth, what would you do? The more profound question is, are you doing it?

In my forever learning, I’ve taken to heart both the fragility and power of life. In being a member of and serving those with disabilities, I’ve known many passings. I’ve watched friends die of MS after the span of a decade or more. I’ve had friends with ALS who’ve only lived three years from diagnosis. And, I’ve had friends with quadriplegia who simply didn’t wake up one morning. Even when there seems to be a predictability to death – as with a terminal condition – there’s not. Anyone of us can die at any time, disability, illness or otherwise. And, we do.

Having known so many who have passed away, it’s made me oddly at ease with death. It literally has long been part of my life, just as it’s a part of life, itself. This isn’t to say I’m not heartbroken with each passing, but I’ve learned not to struggle with the reality of death. Grief for me has become less about sadness and more about fond remembrance. My life has been changed by knowing all who have passed, and their wonderful impact on me has never stopped at their passings – it’s carried on with me.

And, there within resides among my greatest life lessons: honor the fragility and power of life, as Gandhi put it, as if we may die tomorrow. What does that really mean, though?

Living as if you were to die tomorrow means deeply recognizing the power in life we all have. For each of us, priorities are a little different, but there are universal truths. Deeply value and express gratitude to those around us by constantly reaching out to our loved ones, friends and strangers alike. Live our dreams now, rather than putting them off. Find beauty and meaning in as many moments as we can, even in the difficult or mundane. Accept what we can’t change, and move on. Have fun! And, as my wise wife puts it, “Every day, do important things.” Life is what we make it, so why not live to a degree that doesn’t just bring joy and meaning into our lives, but to everyone around us?

As for me, I’m not worried about living or dying tomorrow – I’m fine with either fate. I’m just relishing every moment of today. No matter if it’s rain or shine, I’m using my power wheelchair to dance in it all!

perseverance

By Mark E. Smith

I had always intuitively known of it and practiced it simply based on having my disability. However, it truly didn’t become part of my consciousness, in defined words, until the lesson in class that day.

I enrolled in an upperclassmen “winter course.” Winter courses at my college were a tremendous advantage because during the first three weeks of January – typically winter break – we could take a four-day-per-week class, for five hours per day, and get credit for a semester course. Most enjoyed winter break; but, for those of us who wanted to knock off classes left and right like bowling pins, the winter semester was a goldmine.

That particular winter semester, I took a literature course titled, “The American Renaissance,” covering 19th-century American literature from 1830 till the Civil War. If you know of the Scarlet Letter, The House of Seven Gables, Walden, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, you know something of the era. Having a concentration in American lit, I wasn’t concerned at all about blowing through more Emily Dickinson or Fredrick Douglass. Three weeks? Game on!

The first day of class, we began with an enrollment of around 20 students. The same number showed up the next day. It was a sharp group, and at the end of the second day’s class, the professor announced our homework assignment for the night: we were to go home and read in entirety Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and be prepared to present scholarly analysis at 9:00 a.m. the next morning. The fact that Google didn’t yet exist didn’t help, either – we had to literally read the book and pull out every nuance, overnight.

Depending on the book form, Moby-Dick ranges from 500 to 700 pages. Additionally, the professor made it clear that we would not be discussing the plot, but true scholarly aspects. As we headed out of class, many of my peers noted the impossibility of the task and how unreasonable the professor was. I, though, was only concerned with reading the book. I rolled straight to the bus stop, and opened the book. “The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now.” Tonight is going to suck!

I spent the bus ride, train ride, then the entire night reading Moby-Dick, and I used every technique I was schooled in to extract the text, from as mundane as the name, “Ishmael,” and its connection to the book of Genesis to Melville’s assimilation of Shakespeare. By the next morning, I had double vision, but I could tell anyone a lot more about Moby-Dick than the tale of ticked-off Ahab who’s chasing down a whale for biting off his leg.

In class that morning, only six of us showed up. We spent the day dissecting Moby-Dick, and by the end of class, we just wanted to go home and go to bed. But, the professor stopped us.

“I have a confession,” he said. “Today wasn’t a test on Moby-Dick. It was a test on you. Life isn’t about education, intelligence, or skill. It’s about who is willing to persevere. The six of you didn’t do the impossible – Moby-Dick can be read overnight. However, you did what 14 others in this class weren’t willing to do: you persevered. That’s all you need to not only get an ‘A’ in this course, but to be unbelievably successful in life…”

That experience, along with my disability experience, change my life forever. What I realized was that hardship makes us want to give up. Perseverance allows us to rise up. If you want to rise, choose perseverance every time.

Author’s Note

One can’t logically read the entirety of Moby-Dick every night for the rest of one’s life. However, not taking the easiest routes in life is invaluable toward our constant growth. For me, at 46, with cerebral palsy, I put everything I have into working out several times per week. You might say it’s my constant reminder of the perseverance we’re all capable of. No, I don’t have the best coordination, strength or balance. But, none of that matters – because I’ve got perseverance on my side.

Video

waldorf

By Mark E. Smith

When I roll into my suite at the famous Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue in Manhattan, around 5:00 pm, nothing seems different from any other hotel – that is, except the suite is a multi-room apartment, with lavish mid-1900s furnishings and a view straight up Park Ave. I picked the room online through my Hilton Honors reward program based on location and accessibility. Frills don’t impress me; practicality does. I need a bed and an accessible bathroom – no more, no less. That’s how I ended up here.

So, late for a dinner engagement, I dump my well-traveled adventure backpack luggage on the rug in the entry and split.

Nice suite. Who cares. I’m out of here, late for dinner.

Around 11:00 pm that night, I return to the suite with my wife and her friends and everyone who’s met up in the city, and we gather in the living room. Good friends, great conversation, New York City on a Saturday night – great times. As the late night gets later, right before crashing into bed, I wind my way to the bathroom. I pass through a huge dressing room, and stop dead in my tracks as I gaze at the truly palatial bathroom. While it’s the biggest, most lavish bathroom I’ve ever seen – gold and marble throughout – that’s not what’s stopped me in my tracks. Rather, what’s stopped me in my tracks is there’s a step up to the bathroom, steps to every feature in the bathroom, and even the commode is recessed in a tiny closet.

It’s some time past midnight, I have to use the bathroom beyond belief, and I have no access whatsoever.

In these situations, I strive to retain the dignity we all deserve. And, I need to clarify what I mean by that. Sure, I could call the hotel staff and have an entourage of them do whatever it takes to get me into that bathroom. But, at what personal price? And, why, in 2016, at arguably the most prestigious hotel in the world, at which I booked an accessible room, should I have to?

I just want to pee like anyone else, and it shouldn’t have to be an all hands-on-deck production with strangers to do so.

I pick my battle, and just want to crash into bed, so we find a water bottle, I pee in it, and go to bed. The next morning, I use the wet bar in the foyer to get cleaned up for the day. Of course, I roll down to the manager’s office, and we have a very candid and poignant talk about my experience, where the error in accommodations occurred, and how they need better protocols.

If a dude books an accessible suite, he should get that.

Disability is a fascinating life experience. It’s not just grounding and humbling, but it demands that we maintain perspective. I suppose the Waldorf Astoria exists because some people see luxury and lavishness as adding some sort of value or meaning to their lives – and that’s fine. However, for me, for better or worse, I’m just genuinely grateful to use a bathroom.

(Click image to enlarge)

(Click image to enlarge)

By Mark E. Smith

In my 20s, I achieved notoriety for jumping power wheelchairs off of ramps. To see a guy with cerebral palsy rev up a power wheelchair and jump it off of a ramp, a few feet in the air, was quite the spectacle. For me, it was a mix of misguided bravado, showmanship and stupidity. Unfortunately, though, it worked.

See, although I had overcome and was accomplishing a lot – I was a formal academic and writer at the time – people seemed mildly interested in any of that. But, the power wheelchair jumping, which I cringe to think now as a bit of a freak show, was an attention magnet. Before I knew it, I was featured in big-time magazines, and due to the advent of the Internet, I became widely known as “the guy who jumped power wheelchairs.” Soon, my reputation was bigger than I ever imagined, labeled by one men’s magazine as the “Stunt Cripple” – and my identity fractured.

There was no talent or point in jumping power wheelchairs. It, again, was a shameless spectacle. And, it surely wasn’t who I was. There was so much more to my life and accomplishments. Yet, a single aspect was defining me by reputation. I began to feel boxed in – and I wanted to be who I really was, instead of a one-dimensional caricature.

Many of us have found ourselves in such an identity crisis, haven’t we? We find ourselves in the situation of who others project us as isn’t who we are. In my case, it was admittedly of my own doing, but so often misconceptions, projections or circumstances by others can leave us feeling boxed in. No one should be defined by one dimension; rather, we should be seen in our entirety.

Now, my example of falling into an identity trap is a unique, ridiculous one – stupidity reigned – but it wasn’t the end of the world for my life and career. In far more serious examples, some of us have been boxed in to identities who we’re really not – and it’s been painful and extremely detrimental. How many of us have been in relationships where we felt obligated to act as someone we’re not? How many of us have been stereotyped based on our ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, and so on? How many of us have been labeled based on where we live, what we do for a living, or even how we dress? Indeed, most of us at some point have felt our entirety stripped down to a single trait that doesn’t just make us seem one-dimensional, but may not reflect us at all. The vital question is, how do we avoid that trap?

In some cases, we can’t. We may inevitably encounter stereotypes and ignorance that we can’t control. However, we can control our own behavior and teach people how to treat us. I recently did a big press conference in the New York City metro area. With a podium full of microphones, a row of TV cameras and a crowd of people, I don’t think a person in the room expected me to take the podium. After all, when’s the last time you saw a guy with severe cerebral palsy and a speech impairment command a press conference? But, I wasn’t going to let others’ perceptions or my disability define me. I made it clear that I’d take the podium – and I ended up on the NYC ABC affiliate’s 6 o’clock news that night holding the press conference.

We don’t have to be boxed in by ourselves or anyone else. With a little courage and a lot of introspection, we can most often avoid one-dimensional identities we misguidedly create or are thrust upon us by others. People call me a lot of titles nowadays – General Manager, writer, advocate, humanitarian, intellectual – but there’s one title that taking control of my own actions and identity buried a long time ago: Stunt Cripple.

freehug

By Mark E. Smith

Every night at 10:00 pm, I flip through the cable news channels. With redundant sound bites and flashing scenes – not to mention partisan political rhetoric – I’m told what a terrible world I live in. If I am to believe them, my life in every fathomable way is on the brink of disaster – and so is yours. If texting drivers and terrorists don’t kill us, our jobs will be downsized and exported, and our children will end up on heroin. But, then they go on to note that if we make one wrong vote, we will lose civil liberties and nuclear proliferation will usher in World War III. However, none of this matters because whatever the latest virus is, it’s likely to kill us before all else.

This is how the news media portrays our world night after night. Yet, day after day, my life – the world we share – couldn’t be more different. As one with a severe physical disability, the world of intolerance portrayed by the media that we live in should place me drowning in the bottom of a cruel socio-economic barrel. Yet, I’m not – and, in fact, my world, your world, our world couldn’t be more different than the distorted, sensationalism hyperbole spewed by make-up-strewn talking heads on cable news.

What 45 years of disability experience has proved to me is the truth of humanity. People are kind, accepting, embracing and tolerant. We know that we’re all in this together, and while my adversity is an obvious physical one, we all have known adversity, and it’s among the bonds that unites us. We all want to love and be loved, and as my career has taken me to countless cities and towns across this country, every where I’ve been has demonstrated one universal trait: kindness.

As one with a severe disability, who speaks and looks differently than others, who must turn to strangers for assistance in situations, who flies on planes and lands in cities, I see none of the harsh, cruel world portrayed by the media. I see the flight attendant offer to walk with me through the airport to ensure I find my shuttle van. I see the shuttle van driver insist on tying my shoe. I see hotel clerks ensure all I need is taken care of. I see waitresses intuitively move everything where I can reach it. I see individuals homeless say words of blessing to me. I see strangers in stores, restaurants, everywhere, share the kindest words and hug me.

I don’t know where the media gets its soundbites and images of the bleak world it portrays. But, if they followed me for an hour, in any city in this great country, they’d see the truth: the kindness of the world around us is awe-inspiring. Turn off the TV and get out into it.