Just the Two of Us

Mark E. Smith

In an uncanny foreshadow, over 20 years ago, Jim Martinson – amputee, paralympic wheelchair racer, and owner of wheelchair manufacturer, Magic In Motion (purchased by Sunrise Medical) – noted about his being a single father at the time, “I want my kids to just be kids. Let me worry about the rest.”

Jim’s statement oddly stayed with me all of these years, my never fathoming that his words of wisdom would become so poignant in my own life, that I’d be in his situation decades later.

So, what is it like to be a full-time, single father, who happens to have a disability? As the full-time, single father of a 14-year-old, I can tell you it’s the ultimate joy most of the time, and scary as hell some of the time – with a lot of complexity in-between. But, all is worth it by far, with my daughter the center of my life, where I wouldn’t change any of the difficulties I’ve endured in getting to this point. Indeed, even the most challenging of times can bring miracles into our lives, and my daughter has proved one of them.

Our journey together began at 7:39pm on March 3, 1997, just a day after my own birthday. In the delivery room, I was the first to hold my daughter, and in the most profound moment of my life, she made immediate eye contact with me – and I knew in that instance that we would be forever inseparable. Yet, I wouldn’t know to what phenomenal extent for years to come.

The first three years of my daughter’s life were remarkable. I worked hard to build a life for our family, my marriage was great, and my daughter was the best toddler ever – it was all of my dreams coming true. On my daughter’s part, she seemed to intuitively understand my disability, where as a baby, she lay perfectly still for me to change her diapers, and even at the age of two, she would stick with me – either on my lap, or waddling beside my wheelchair – in even the most distracting of circumstances without a fuss. She just always seemed to understand and respect me, including my limitations, in a way that was dramatically different than I’ve seen in other parent-child relationships.

As a result, from her birth through her toddler years, my daughter and I developed a dynamic-duo effect, where we became quite the team. From that foundation, and with my marriage disintegrating over the course of many years, I assumed more and more parental responsibilities as my daughter grew, to where although all of us where still living under one roof, I was increasingly the primary parent, a role that my friends and family picked up on before I did. Even when in an unhealthy relationship, one is still in a relationship, and I suppose that because there was still a “mom” in the physical home, I didn’t realize that I was taking on more and more of a single-parenting role. I look back now and think, Wow, there were years of evolution in that process that I was oblivious to! But, even in a bad relationship, we’re not really “alone,” and I think my trying to balance my career with raising my daughter and dealing with an unhealthy relationship didn’t allow me to see the larger dynamic that was occurring: I was on track to being a truly single parent.

And, that day eventually came, in its own time as life changes go. I’d like to tell you such change has been the best thing ever, but no ended marriage is good, nor is being a single parent what’s wished. It all may be for the best given the alternatives, but it’s never an ideal. Yet, my daughter’s and my approach has been just that – let us together take a less-than-ideal situation and make it for the best. After all, that’s the only way one can succeed in trying times and move forward in healthy directions.

Toward the emotional, those of us close to my daughter haven’t seen her more content and at peace. With just her and me living together, there’s no stress in the home, just positivity, love, and support, where she has an emotionally safe place to breathe. And, it’s proved wonderful. She has amazing friends, and her relationships with strong, healthy women like my sister have been evolving into fantastic role models. Of course, the ideal would be for my daughter to have a strong, healthy mother, but that can’t be at this juncture – life isn’t fair or just – so let me, as her father, at least be aware of the importance of having only healthy female role models in her life.

My daughter and I have had to set clear boundaries on whom does what around the house. Going back to Jim Martinson’s point, kids do need to be kids – and that’s been difficult for my daughter to practice at times. The fact is, she does see me working like a maniac, in every way, and she wants to jump in and help – a testimonial to her character. But, she needs to concentrate on school, drama, band, and friends – that is, on being a teenager. Indeed, she has her chores, but I really need to be Dad, doing as much around the house as possible, even if some tasks are easier for her than for me.

Of course, my daughter isn’t perfect – and I even find great joy in that, where she’s definitely a teenager. I loved all summer when I was busting my butt from 5:00am till 11:00pm, and I’d race home at lunch to check on my daughter, only to wake her up, finding her not yet out of bed! Or, I can’t count how many times per night I have to remind her to take the dogs out, where she’s distracted by texting, Facebook, and chatting with friends. Or, when she’s oblivious to scenes like our English bulldog prancing around with a full roll of toilet paper in her mouth, and I note, “It looks like it snowed in the living room – how did you walk by that dog ten times, and not see her shredding toilet paper?” And, it’s inexplicable to me how her room is such a mess! (They tell me it’s a teenage girl thing.)

And, I’m not perfect, by any stretch. My role as father is the one that’s the most joyous and rewarding to me, where I would go to the ends of the Earth for my daughter. And, while I think I’m doing a pretty good job, it’s still scary as hell at times. As forgiving as kids are, there truly aren’t any do-overs in raising them – parenting isn’t a trial run – so getting everything right is a weighty task, especially as a single parent. For me, there’s constant listening to my daughter – and I mean truly listening – and trying to determine how I can best meet her emotional and mental needs at vital moments. Sometimes I have answers, and sometimes I don’t – and a lot of times I just follow her lead, supporting her in her processes. What I’ve learned is that, as parents, delivering the right answer isn’t always required, but simply supporting our children so that they can find the right answers for themselves in the healthiest ways is often our role. Let me guide, but not stifle.

In my personal life, there’s an overall level of “sobriety,” where my sense of accountability and responsibility is greater than it’s ever been. We know that single parents are statistically more likely to have depression, absenteeism at work, and indulge in substance abuse – but I’ll have none of that. To the contrary, I wish to do right by everyone, especially my daughter and my career, so my tact has been to step-up my game, not let it slide. Sure, I feel overwhelmed and alone at times – there’s an insane amount to accomplish in each day, and I don’t have an intimate partner to turn to for support – but those aren’t excuses to have a drink or crawl into bed and hide; rather, they’re reasons to push myself even harder, staying up as late as it takes to try to get it all done, moving through it all with healthy emotional acknowledgment and tenacity. Twenty years from now, I want my daughter to look back upon these times and say, Not only did my dad work through it all, he actually picked up the ball and ran with it!

In all, we are a dynamic duo, moving through life very well, just the two of us. It’s not always easy or perfect, but we’re striving to make the most of it – and there’s a lot of joy and laughter in our hearts and home these days. Naturally, my daughter has asked me if I foresee “us” ever having a long-term relationship with a woman, possibly step siblings in the mix?

“I don’t see why not,” I told her. “It would have to be a remarkable woman to take on us; but, as we’ve proven, we have a lot of unconditional love to give in return. For now, though, it’s just you and me, kiddo – and that’s pretty special.”

The Best Kinds of Crazy

By Mark E. Smith

One of my college buddies was the private pilot on comedian, Howie Mandel’s, national comedy tours in the early 1990s. My buddy’s observation was that Mandel was genuinely crazy, that he never saw Mandel waiver from his on-stage persona, that on the jet, Mandel would simply waffle between being hysterically funny and clinically irrational. In fact, Mandel billed himself as “a wild and crazy borderline psychotic.”

Of course, we now know that Mandel publicly discusses one of his diagnosed mental illnesses, mysophobia, an irrational fear of germs. Yet, based on my buddy’s stories and Mandel’s over-the-top persona, it’s reasonable to wonder if Mandel has other conditions, as well?

Interestingly, the psychology community has been studying a link between mental illness and very successful people for two decades, and their findings are fascinating. “Hypomania” is a persistent mood that causes an exaggeration of thoughts that’s most often linked to bipolar disorder, where one can be energized, euphoric, overflowing with ideas, extra social, and a risk-taker. These traits may not only be seen in those suffering profound mental illness, but are also seen in extraordinarily successful people. After all, from show business to entrepreneurial business, being energized, euphoric, overflowing with ideas, extra social, and a risk-taker are all traits that allow one to succeed where others would fail. Therefore, there is a debate in the psychology community that certain kinds of diagnosed mental illness may not be “crazy” at all, but actually an evolutionary advantage.

I’ve witnessed this similar phenomena in physical disability terms, where physical disability isn’t debilitating for some, but actually elevating, where their lives aren’t restricted by it, but empowered.

What’s extraordinary about physical disability is that if we’re to succeed, it requires us to more intently focus on abilities, where our lives aren’t about what we can’t do, but what we can do. The average person without disability goes through life with a fairly fixed outlook toward what’s possible, rarely questioning it, rarely recognizing the chances that present choices.

However, when it comes to physical disability, we’re forced to question at points in our lives, Can I do that? – and, what’s remarkable is that the question most often leads to, How do I do it? which leads to accomplishing what was once thought impossible. So, this progression of constantly questioning what’s possible leads to never-ending expansions of our lives, where the possibilities eventually become endless, where we forget about the initial question of, Can I do it?, and begin only asking, How do I do it? And, it’s at that point that we see nothing but potentials. Put simply, while other people stop at what’s practical or seemingly rational, we intrinsically push ours live much further, toward what’s truly achievable on a scale that others don’t fully grasp. In ways, we may seem crazy.

And, because we can live on such a larger scale, where …well …anything seems possible, it can perplex those without disabilities who live strikingly limited lives. When someone questions how you do something, or sees your goals as unrealistic, it’s not reflective of you as one with a disability – again, you think and live on a larger scale than most! – but it merely reflects the closed mindsets of those who haven’t had the opportunity to become so visionary.

Indeed, physical disability intrinsically opens us to possibilities, proving not a limiting factor in our lives, but truly an unlimited factor, where what some inaccurately define as debilitating is ultimately liberating. And, surely there’s enormous value, reward, and blessing to living in a counter-intuitive realm, where crazy can prove a higher level of sanity, and physical disability can prove a higher level of ability.

Moments In Time

(Mom and me)

By Mark E. Smith

I’m having lunch in Club 33 in Disneyland – and I’m with Amy, who my friends have only known from reading about her in my first book, published in 1995, 6 years after I graduated high school.

But, now it’s 16 years later after the publishing of that book – and 22 years since I last saw Amy – and in an uncanny twist not lost on me, we’re in “The Most Magical Place on Earth,” eating lunch at the hidden, exclusive Club 33, where a friend of mine has been kind enough to get me all-but-impossible reservations, jumping a 14-year waiting list, per Disney hype.

I struggle more than ever with the validity of my first book, and I’m glad it’s long out of print. Its title, Growing Up With Cerebral Palsy, was way too literal and boring for me as my childhood autobiography, but the publisher insisted that it would sell well to libraries and schools – and he was right. And, I dislike its simplistic, diary-type writing style – yet, people still note it as candid and enduring.

However, what troubles me most about the book is the emotional place I was in while writing it, where I was still struggling to come to terms with my mother’s profound alcoholism.

What’s haunted me is that while all other “characters” in the book are treated as they truly were, from my alcoholic father, to Amy, my high school crush, not a word was mentioned of my mother’s alcoholism – I painted her as a one-dimensional saint. The progression of her alcoholism was so painful to me at the writing of the book in my early 20s that I went from writing of her as a heroic figure raising a child with cerebral palsy to not being able to write about her at all. If you read the book cover-to-cover, my mother simply disappears by the end, an unexplained absence. It’s a book that’s both strikingly candid and full of absolute denial – and I’ve fought with that truth since the day it was published.

And, here I am, 16 years later, having lunch with Amy, my high school crush from the book, at Club 33 – and my mom is dying of cancer, her apartment being cleaned out and her cremation arrangements made. And, all of this is weighing on me. Amy thinks I’m tired from our being up all night talking, and I am, but I’m also struggling to both live in this amazing moment with Amy who’s just here for me without conditions, while simultaneously struggling with the fact that my mom is 3,000 miles away dying. It’s all just emotionally whirling around me like the constant visuals of Disney, itself, never knowing where to look because it’s all larger than me – overwhelming.

I haven’t had a real relationship with my mom in about 15 years. The initial royalty check from my first book went toward my mom’s stint in rehab where she chugged a 5th of vodka between there and coming to see me upon her “successful completion.” I’m sure now that my naive – but well-wished – attempt at her sobriety (and the many others), was just me trying to make things right – my mom’s health, the sentiments of the book, the sober relationship with my mom that I so desperately wanted. But, I never did make it right, I never found a way to sober-up my mom, not for my graduations, wedding, or the birth of my daughter. In my rational mind, I know now that only my mom could make things right through pursuing sobriety – but the loyal son in me still feels that I let her down in some way, that if I could do so much for myself and others, why’d I forever fail at helping my own mom?

And, what cuts deepest is that my mom didn’t fail me – she saved me. She was a troubled 20-year-old, with a son born with cerebral palsy, and when the doctors told her that there was no hope, that she’d best leave me to die, she took me home and somehow pulled it together to keep me alive. Yes, by the time I was 7 or 8, her addiction had the best of her – and, as a father, myself, I can’t fathom how she put alcohol before her children. But, in the most vital days of my early life, she was there for me – the only one. That can’t be overlooked or underrated in any narrative.

I previously saw my mother just a few days earlier at my sister’s wedding. She was a frail skeleton of herself – all treatments done, just waiting to die. My sister went through great lengths to make sure Mom had a custom-tailored dress, her hair and makeup done, looking like a woman of eloquence, stunning. And, yes, she was drinking. And, for once it was OK – it was all OK. I can no longer judge her; I can only love her for who she is, unconditionally, as she did for me over 40 years ago.

“I’ve never seen you look more beautiful,” I told Mom at the wedding, just living in the moment, all of our past erased by her just being there, my seeing her just as her, unconditionally.

After our lunch at Club 33, Amy and I caught up with the kids, and rode the rides with them at Disney, all in a magical universe. Later that night, Amy and I simply stayed up talking, our kids tucked asleep, where for a moment in time – two imperfect people trying to make sense of such present changes in our lives – we were just there in completeness for each other, ourselves, unconditionally.

The next morning, I awoke to my daughter singing as she packed. Amy was gone, having caught an early-morning flight. Her perfume was still in the air, a reminder of what had been for a moment in time. I had to put on a good face for my daughter, and while it took all my emotional might, I managed to get up and going. I had to go back to a reality where my mother was dying, where I was essentially a single father in a failed marriage, where I didn’t know if I’d see Amy again in a month, 22 years, or ever. But, I had to go back home, home to address it all.

I put on my Ray Ban sunglasses, heavy and dark, swung open the hotel room door, and headed out into the world – one that’s not perfect or fair or even understandable at times. But, at least I was re-entering a world where I was a more feeling man.

Upon returning home, my schedule for the work week was busy. I had a Medtrade planning committee project due and a conference call; I had a radio interview to do; I had a mid-week overnight trip to New York City involving a speaking engagement; I had all of my normal office duties and WheelchairJunkie.com responsibilities to tend to; my wife was supposed to be moving out of the house per our split-up; and, I had my daughter to care for. But, I could easily handle it all – just get it done, task by task, as always.

But, my mom was still dying. And, as much as I thought all was made amends just two weeks earlier at my sister’s wedding, I had to speak with her one more time – and on the deepest level. What was said and recognized at the wedding wasn’t enough. There was more to be said, to be healed. And, so in the middle of a crazy work day, I grabbed my cell phone and called my sister.

“I need to see Mom and talk to her tonight,” I said. “It has to be tonight.”

“She’s not doing well at all,” my sister said. “We can try to get you over there tonight, but she may not be totally with it. The hospice says she’s not doing good at all.”

“I don’t care,” I said. “I just need to see her, and tell her something.”

The day past, and by evening, my sister called, noting that Mom wasn’t doing well still, that in the next morning, she’d be moving into my sister’s for her final days, with home hospice care – the way my sister wanted it. But, inexplicably to all of us, my mother wanted to speak with me, too, and wanted to join us for a family meal, despite her inability to eat.

We made late reservations at my favorite restaurant, where I’m known, where I’ve frequented every week for quite some time, where I’m comfortable having the deepest conversations over dinner and drinks with friends, where birthdays have been celebrated, friendships strengthened, and good-byes to leaving colleagues have been said. If I was to speak with Mom, it was a comfortable place to do it.

But, as I drove to meet my sister and mom at the restaurant, I was more scared about what I was going to say than ever in my life. I’ve met with the President of the United States; I’ve done countless interviews; and, I’ve spoken in front of countless groups. But, this was different, rattling to my core. How do you look at your dying mother after so much tension and pain between you, and definitively express your ultimate gratitude and love? How can that ever be put into words?

Sitting at the table, bread and drinks served, I just followed my heart. “Mom, I wanted to talk to you not because you’re dying, but because you’re living,” I said, putting my arm around her. “Despite all that’s gone on, you were there for me at the toughest point in my life, when no one thought I would live, and you pulled me through – and I can’t express my love and gratitude enough for what you did for me.”

My mother saw my tears and stopped me there. And, in a moment I never expected, with a sobriety I hadn’t recalled in her since I was very young, she explained her side of it all – her regrets, her shortcomings, her absolute remorse toward the life she led and what she put us through. And, in the greatest act of kindness I’ve ever witnessed, she – too frail to walk by herself, eat, or talk above a slight whisper – made every effort with her words to apologize to me, my sister, and my daughter, one-by-one. A woman who long lived among the most selfish lives – which is what addicts do – used among the last moments of her life to offer among the most unselfish acts, all on her own accord, apologizing to her children, trying to make things right while she still could.

As tears flooded the table, our salads were served, and my mother asked, “Marko, do you need a spoon for that?”

And, for a split second I chuckled – after all, who eats salad with a spoon? But, then I realized that my mother literally went back to being my mother at that instant, where around the age of 5, when I was learning to feed myself, I could only manipulate a spoon, not a fork. And, although I’ve eaten with forks for decades now, my mother had taken us both back to a specific moment in time, before her world disappeared into a bottle of vodka, when she was just my mother, unconditionally.

“I’ve got this covered, Mom,” I said, picking up my fork.

At this writing, my mother is passing. For me, our life is like bookends: Yes, there was a lot of complexity in our lives in-between my birth and her death; but, on each end she gave my the greatest gifts of all – life at the beginning and healing at the end.

Will It Kill Me?

By Mark E. Smith

Is it literally going to kill me – and, if not, then I’m going through with it for my own betterment and growth. This is the code I strive to live by.

I’ve most recently been tested on this mindset, where I’ve admittedly become obsessed with riding my 6-wheel-drive, amphibious ATV on the 110 acres adjacent to my home. After my obligations for the day are done, I go out to my garage, put on full moto gear, fire up the ATV, and roar up the “Mountain Trail,” as I’ve nicknamed it. I’ve been getting faster and faster on the wooded trail sections, seeing how quickly I can slalom around the oaks without nailing a tree; and, I climb and descend hills too steep and tall to walk up or down.

At times, maybe I’m pushing myself and my vehicle to the very limits, where I drive up to the edge of embankments so high and steep that I can’t see the Earth past my ATV’s hood – just the sky straight ahead – and I summon the courage to simply drive off, where I trust that my driving skills, my vehicle, and the terrain will allow me to make it down unscathed. And, no matter how risky or uncertain a circumstance has seemed, overcoming my fear and tackling terrain I never imagined that I could, has never let me down, proving enormously liberating, where I’m pushing my mind and body far past previous barriers, to great personal growth, where if I can overcome fear and obstacles in my ATV, it carries over into my everyday life. If it’s literally not going to kill me – flying cross country alone for business, giving a talk in front of hundreds of people, being as open and honest as possible with those around me, tackling a seemingly impossible independent living skill, driving my ATV off of a several-hundred-foot-tall embankment, or any other anxiety-filled life experience – I’m going to do it, period. After all, if it won’t literally kill me, then there’s no valid excuse not to push myself forward.

Interestingly, I’ve observed that the process of moving forward once in motion is easy – it’s summonsing the courage to make the decision to initiate momentum in life that’s hard. Trust me, I’ve sat atop embankments – both in my ATV and in life, wanting to twist the throttle and just go for it – where fear had a grip on me, daring me to overcome it. Yet, once I’ve said to heck with fear, and just gunned it, my life in any circumstance has flourished. So, it’s the “saying to heck with fear” aspect that really proves the hardest part of change and growth. Life is really just one, big twelve-step program, where committing to the process of change is the hardest – and most crucial – part.

A lot of times we know what we should do – or must do – but committing to doing it, where we know there’s no turning back, can prove the hardest moves we ever make. It’s among the scariest questions in life – that is, should I or shouldn’t I? – in committing to decisions. I recently had the amazing opportunity to participate as a volunteer at an adaptive water sports clinic by Champions Made From Adversity in Georgia – a fantastic organization. Our crew was one of around six boats pulling those of all types of disabilities on tubes and sit-skis. What astounded me was that, as a seasoned boater myself, I know lots of “able-bodied” people who won’t tube or water ski out of fear. Yet, there I was in Georgia, with peers of all ages and disabilities, who were overcoming all fear to simply tackle what in many cases they never imagined doing – that is, with limited use over one’s body, putting one’s trust in a situation that was literally dragging them into the unknown: Heading out into a gigantic, deep lake at speed, bucking and bouncing, not knowing if they would drown (lifeguards on jetskis did parallel every run, so when someone fell out, rescue was immediate).

What I witnessed was that not only wasn’t anyone harmed – even when they fell out! – but the participants were actually empowered by the experience of overcoming their fear. Make no mistake, some were terrified getting in the tube – it was the hardest part of the process for them – but they still did it. And, we had the privilege of watching their lives change at 20 mph behind a boat, where they realized the liberation of, If it won’t kill me, I’m going to attempt it in an effort to better myself, even if I’m initially terrified.

Just like those with great trepidation to get into the tube at the adaptive water sports clinic, I’ve sat atop harrowing embankments in my ATV, hand on throttle, for minutes at a time, where it’s taken all of my courage to simply gun it, dropping into the unknown – but, I’ve always done it, landing tougher and more confident at the bottom. Yet, what I’ve grown to know is that overcoming short-term fear and stress is the catalyst for long-term growth and success, that getting past fear leads to liberation, no matter in the physical, emotional, or interpersonal. Much like I’ve learned that I can survive descending and climbing through the steepest ravines in my ATV, I can do the same in life, where overcoming initial fear will bring me to amazing vistas.

I wonder, what are you not tackling in your own life simply out of fear of the unknown? If you attempt it, will it literally kill you? If not, then there’s truly nothing stopping you from pursuing what you’ve thought too impractical, scary, or impossible – you, too, can summons the courage, no matter what you’re facing, to not just tackle the unknown, but to actually thrive in the attempt. Once we push beyond anxiety toward change – albeit, physical, emotional, interpersonal, or all in one – and propel ourselves forward in positive directions, the personal rewards are astounding: Vistas in our life appear that we never knew existed.

The No-Excuses Generation

By Mark E. Smith

At some point – maybe 15 or 20 years ago – the meaning of disabled became blurred to me as I began recognizing the seemingly unlimited potentials in my life. And, in more recent years, the meaning has become all but moot to me, merely definitions in medical books, as I’ve widely witnessed the truly unlimited potential in others’ lives, those who have achieved enormous success in every facet, regardless of disability.

Sure, if I put myself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t know anyone with a “severe disability,” I understand that his or her perception of disability – or, lack thereof – is pretty grim, with stereotypes of our living limited lives in countless ways, full of dependencies on others, from our families to the government.

And, while these stereotypes may hold true for some with disabilities based on any number of circumstances, there’s a fascinating segment of individuals with “severe disabilities” where limitations and dependencies aren’t the case at all – that is, where disability isn’t disability, where beyond a medical diagnosis, the scorecard of one’s life simply transcends what one might define as disabled, entering the realm of even exceeding the mainstream’s definitions of success.

While many credit the ADA in 1990 as a social door-opener for those with disabilities, it was truly 1970s legislation and that era’s independent living movement in the U.S. that created a generation – born between 1965 and 1975 with “severe disabilities” – who came into a society of every-increasing opportunities, and were encouraged by the spirit of the 1980s and 1990s to fully use every resource they could access. Therefore, we’re now seeing many between the ages of 35 and 45 – born with “severe disabilities” – living such successful lives that it truly questions the common wisdom of what it means to be “disabled.” When we look at the demographics of this generation (a notably small group compared to the overall disability population), it’s statistically distinguished from younger and older generations of those with disabilities based on education level, employment success, wealth-building, physical independence, social status, community involvement, and committed relationships. Indeed, you might say there’s a new generation of young, upwardly-mobile professionals (yuppies) – and they have disabilities.

An example is a family I know who’s truly living the American dream – custom home, pool, luxury cars, children attending a private school, vacation home, easily pulling in a 6-figure income. Oh, and the husband has very severe cerebral palsy. Because of the sensitivity of his position, I can’t tell you his job, but he’s high-up in a certain branch of the government. I recently jokingly asked his wife what she saw in a schmuck like him, and to my surprise, she gave me a candid answer: “I wanted a perfect 10. All my friends were willing to settle; but, I knew I wanted it all,” she told me. “He had to be smart, worldly, a great listener, respected by all, a hard-worker, a great father, and someone who was secure enough to support my dreams, too. And, I found it all in him, my perfect 10.”

Her ability to look at the complete picture of her husband, not his medical diagnosis, is such a profound insight – and it’s the same insight that’s defining this generation that’s arguably transcending “disability.” Put simply, this generation of those with disabilities isn’t dwelling on “disability,” but looking at the whole of life, where limitations are replaced by abilities, where dependency is replaced by independence. And, the results are astounding, where many with severe disabilities haven’t just beat all of the grim statistics of those with disabilities living in America – as in lower rates of education and higher rates of unemployment and poverty – but actually exceed the mainstream when it comes to education, income, and social mobility.

Interestingly, beyond a visibility to friends on social networks like Facebook, this generation generally avoids the limelight, not partaking in inspirational stories on television or boasting of their accomplishments in public venues. Instead, there’s a quiet humility to their successes, where they are the families next door. They demonstrate that they’re not out to prove anything to anyone, but that they’re simply living their best because it’s the right way to live, regardless of disability.

The question, however, remains: How has this generation reached the higher rungs of status and economics with inherently severe disabilities?

Again, the answer includes a combination of timing and mindset. The 1970s cracked the door of opportunity for those with disabilities, and this generation burst it wide open, seizing every opportunity in sight. Disability wasn’t seen as an obstacle, but just a trait, where all other abilities, talents, and opportunities superseded it. As one of my buddies put it, ”I wasn’t worried in the least about my spina bifida in college – I was focused on building a career.”

And, it’s a mindset that we all can learn from: Disability doesn’t have to be a defining state or ultimately limiting condition, but, in many ways, just a label – a label we can choose not to represent who we are. That is, we can have a disability, but not be “disabled” by it. As another friend of mine put it, “Why would I choose to be disabled when, with some effort, I can be educated, employed, wealthy, and in love – and then just have disability as a sidebar to it all?”

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.