My Go-To Tunes: Old School Country

I have always been a person who associates memories with music. I can’t always remember what I was wearing for a specific event, but I can tell you what memories are attached to songs.

Growing up, our house was always full of music. The stereo was playing, or one of my sisters was practicing her musical instruments. I learned to sing songs which may or may not have been appropriate at a young age.

One of the first songs I remember singing is “Rhinestone Cowboy” by Glen Campbell. I used to have an orange plastic rocking horse with a blue mane. I named him Filbert. I would ride Filbert in my parents’ living room, wearing my cowboy hat, and sing “Rhinestone Cowboy” at the top of my lungs. I still know all the words. I don’t know whether to be proud of that.

Today I heard the news that Glen Campbell passed away. In honor of his life and legacy, I give you my Old School Country memory. Thank you for the music Glen.

 

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Laughter as Therapy

Last week, my friend Shameka sent me a text inviting me to join her for a night out. The comedian Josh Blue was coming to town – did I want to go?

Of course, I said yes. I love Josh. His comedy is super funny and smart. He uses his disability (he has cerebral palsy) in his stand up routines, but not in an inspiration porn way. If you’ve never seen him perform, here’s a clip from his special “Sticky Fingers.”

After the week I had, I was looking forward to a night out with good friends. Kelley, Shameka, Katie and I arrived at the comedy club early because we wanted to be able to get a table which would accommodate 3 wheelchairs and still give us a good view. I expected to see more disabled peers in the audience because so many people I know like Josh, but we were the only three visibly disabled people in the room as far as I could tell.

Josh didn’t disappoint. He was hysterical! We laughed, and laughed, and laughed. At one point, I made the mistake of taking a drink when I thought he was pausing. I was not ready for the joke and almost spat my mouthful at Kellie. I don’t think she noticed.

It was very interesting to watch the mainly nondisabled audience respond to his jokes about disability. As a person who often jokes about the stupid crap nondisabled people say to me, Josh’s jokes were spot on. I don’t claim to have the same timing or talents, but whenever I make comments like he did I never notice the tension in my nondisabled listeners as was present early in the show last night.

Here’s the thing – laughter is an important tool in helping us find common ground with those who are not exactly like us! Josh said it himself in his show last night when he quipped, “Doesn’t it feel good to laugh?”

Yes! It felt great to laugh last night. As I’ve written about in several posts, the past eighteen months have been some of the most challenging months of my life. I have not had much laughter. I miss it. I dislike being angry, bitter and depressed. I have tried to embrace gratitude, and strive to keep public complaints to a minimum. But, sometimes things just suck.

Last night, surrounded by friends who “get it,” watching a comedian who “gets it,” I felt more like me than I’ve felt in months. This morning I woke up still laughing.

Thank you Shameka, Kelley and Katie for a wonderful night of friendship and fun. And thank you Josh for the work you do to help the nondisabled laugh at disability the way we’ve been laughing at it for years.

If you’re reading this in the Capital District of NY, Josh is performing again tonight (Saturday, July 29). His website lists his tour dates for other cities. You should go see him if you can. Maybe you’ll get to pose for your own photo after the show!

Photo of two women using wheelchairs and a man kneeling between them. The woman on the left is black and wearing glasses and a black shawl. The woman on right is white and is wearing a red shirt and blue skirt. The man has a beard and is wearing a black t-shirt  with the word "DELETE" in white letters. All three are laughing.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Friday night was special. I spent the evening with family celebrating my great niece’s seventh birthday. Seven is a fun age, and her party was packed with things a seven year old girl would enjoy – pizza, new clothes for her doll, and a three layer cake covered with pink frosting and chocolate chips.

One of the reasons I enjoy family events is because of the laughter and love we share whenever we are together. Emily, the birthday girl, and her younger brother Evan who is four years old, kept us smiling all night. But it was an exchange that happened early in the party that continues to play in my head.

I was sitting with my sister Sandy when Evan approached us. Like most children, Evan is intrigued by my wheelchair. When he was younger, he was content to simply ride on my lap. Now he is determined to figure out how the controls regulate the various aspects of my chair, such as speed and seat elevation. Standing next to my chair, he displayed remarkable restraint keeping his hands at his side rather than reaching for my joystick. Suddenly, he turned his quizzical gaze to Sandy and this delightful interchange took place.

Evan: Aunt Sandy, where’s your wheelchair?

Sandy: I don’t have one.

Evan: Why not?

Sandy: Because I don’t need one yet. Maybe someday I’ll have one.

Evan: (looking delighted and excited, and clapping his hands) Then you’ll be twins!

The three of us laughed as Sandy picked up Evan for a hug. The party continued, with pizza, presents and cake. But Evan’s comments stuck with me and caused me to reflect as I boarded the bus to go home.

At four years of age, Evan already knows that a wheelchair is a cool piece of equipment. He does not view me with pity. He does not perceive a wheelchair or a disability as being a Bad Thing, with a capital b and capital t as said by the late, great Stella Young. Of course, he doesn’t understand all the intricacies of life with a disability because he is just four years old. But he understands critical information other nondisabled adults seem slow to grasp, such as:

  1. I am my own person.
  2. My wheelchair is not the worst thing in the world, or a reason to shy away from me.
  3. I do not have a poor quality of life.
  4. I am capable and competent.

Evan is not unique in his abilities. All of my nieces and nephews, and now their children, have been exposed to my wheelchair and my disability their entire lives. They have all developed a level of disability cultural competency through their interactions with me, a disabled family member. This has created a level of comfort with disability at a young age in many of them which their peers may not have developed.

When I am with my young family members, I don’t hear negative comments about disability. I don’t hear pity. I don’t hear insensitve or ableist comments like the ones I hear from strangers on a regular basis, such as:

You manage that thing pretty well!

Slow down – you’ll get a speeding ticket!

You got snow tires for that thing?

You’re so pretty for someone who uses a wheelchair.

Oh, you work?!

And my personal ‘favorite’…

I don’t know how you manage. If I had to use a wheelchair, I’d kill myself.

My young family members who have been exposed to my reality as a disabled woman say different things. They say things like:

That man has a red chair like Aunt Denise’s!

Maybe you could drive us to skating when you get your new van Aunt Denise.

Will you read to me Aunt Denise?

We put the ramp down for you Aunt Denise!

And my personal favorite…

I love you, Aunt Denise.

If my young nieces and nephews can understand disability is not the worst thing, why can’t more adults figure it out?

A wooden boardwalk extends over water. The side railings are shades of green and yellow. There are mountains in the distance under a partially cloudy sky.

Saying Yes

I was born with a progressive neuromuscular disease. When I was diagnosed at age three, doctors could not predict how long I would walk, when I would need to use a wheelchair, or even how long I would live.

My parents chose to raise me as a person with capabilities, rather than limitations. Sure, there were activities I could not do. This did not excuse me from chores I could perform, such as washing and drying dishes, or setting and clearing the table.

I was raised to be an optimist – to look for possibilities when others might see challenges, solutions when faced with barriers.

They were shaping what would become my manifesto.

I left my small upstate New York hometown on August 16, 1990, to live for a year as a Rotary Youth Exchange Student in Tasmania, Australia. Thousands of students participate in this international exchange program each year. However, I was one of the first disabled students to successfully complete an exchange year through Rotary International, and the first wheelchair-using student in the program.

Living on the other side of the world for ten months as a teenager taught me important lessons about tolerance, culture and advocacy. But the most important lesson came from advice I received the night before I left home when our neighbor, Doctor Kenneth “Doc” Benson, DVM, came over.

Denise, you are going to be invited to many events this year. You will have lots of opportunities to see new things and meet new people. Whatever happens, say yes. Do it all. You never know if you’ll get another chance.

Say yes. Do it all.

During my exchange year, I said “YES!” to every invitation. I went to dinners, barbecues, parties, sailing trips, basketball games, museum tours and concerts. I traveled from the island state of Tasmania to mainland Australia three times. I toured Tasmania with fifteen other exchange students and then toured mainland Australia with eighty-four exchange students. It was one of the best years of my life.

By the time I returned to the United States, saying yes had become a way of life. I have a wealth of stories to tell because I chose to say yes when others may have said no.

Want to go for a spur of the moment ride to New York City on Saturday rather than sit in the dorms? Sure!

Travel to Rhode Island to watch the local hockey team win a play-off game on the weekend of college graduation? I’m in!

Enter a national competition for women who use wheelchairs? Why not – sounds fun!

Sing at an event in Washington, DC on the eve of a predicted snow storm even though you might get snowed in? It would be an honor!

As my physical capabilities have declined, it has become more challenging to say yes. I still say yes as often as possible, but doing so now requires more effort and planning. In 2014 when I was asked to return to Australia to speak at a 2015 conference, I said yes on instinct without thinking. Thankfully, I had a year to prepare. It took months of research, planning and the assistance of many to make the trip a reality.

Living with disability makes saying yes an exercise in problem solving and strategic thinking. Yet, it is not impossible to say yes even when one relies on others for personal care assistance.

I have required more assistance for over a year due to a sharp decline in my abilities following last year’s femur fracture. I have not been able to drive independently for months, and may not be getting a new van until the end of this year. I have been constantly recruiting and training new Personal Assistants to meet my basic needs. It has been one of the most challenging periods in my life.

It is tempting to just withdraw while I wait for more independence. I have not always wanted to say yes because sometimes it is just easier to say no. It takes less effort to say no. It costs less time and money. It is less stressful.

Whenever I feel like saying no, I am transported back to the summer of 1990. I am sixteen years old again, about to leave for what will end up being the most influential year of my life. I hear Doc’s voice once more in my head and I am reminded that I have no regrets about missed opportunities.

Whatever happens, say yes. Do it all. You never know if you’ll get another chance.

The next time you find yourself faced with opportunity, give yourself permission to say yes. It may not be your first instinct. It may not be easy. It might take planning and preparation, and even then it may not be worth it.

But you won’t know until you try.

Furrry, fuzzy baby penguin chick holding a bouquet of pink roses.

I’m Fine Without a Valentine

If you ask my closest friends, they will tell you I am a romantic. Of course, I will deny it at first, even though deep down I know it’s true.

I love love. I love doing nice things for those I love. I love giving unique gifts I know will be loved and appreciated by the recipient.

But I don’t love Valentine’s Day.

It’s not because I have spent the vast majority of Valentine’s Days without a romantic love. Granted, this will be the 24th Valentine’s Day since I was 18 years old and I have only had a romantic love for 4 of those days.

Yes, I love having a romantic partner when that is a part of my life. It is thrilling to have someone who honors your vulnerability and likes you anyway; someone who shares intimate secrets and sends your dopamine levels soaring with compliments and kisses.

However, my self-worth has never been tied to having a romantic relationship with a man. I have always been comfortable on my own, not really able to understand those people who felt like they needed someone to “complete them,” or make them “whole.”

Some of my friends tell me it’s just because I haven’t met my “soul mate,” the person I am “supposed to be with.” They tell me to just hang on and when the time is right, “Mr. Right will come along.” What if I’m alright without a Mr. Right?

My dislike of Valentine’s Day is not because I have not been exposed to extended romantic relationships. My parents celebrated their 63rd anniversary last July, six months prior to my father’s death in December. My grandparents, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers-in-law, many friends – all examples of strong marriages and relationships I am blessed to witness.

I certainly don’t dislike Valentine’s Day because love is absent from my life. I am fortunate to have a wide circle of support, love and affection from a variety of friends and family. These connections are central to my feeling of well-being and happiness. They sustain me when times are challenging and help me celebrate the good.

Maybe my dislike of this day meant for lovers stems from the fact that even if I found romantic love and wanted to get married, marriage is not a realistic option for me due to my disability and my need for long term care. Like most people who receive home care for an extended length of time, I rely on Medicaid to pay for my Personal Assistants. Thanks to the New York Medicaid Buy-In Program for Working People with Disabilities (MBIWPD), I am allowed to work and earn more income than allowed in traditional Medicaid and still qualify for Medicaid coverage.

Medicaid eligibility can be complex, and is based on a number of variables such as income and resources. It also varies from state to state. As a single person without a disability or dependents, using 2015 income and resource levels found on the New York State Department of Health website, I would qualify for Medicaid as long as my income is less than $1,343 per month or $16,105 annually. As a person with a disability, I would qualify if my income was less than $825 per month, or $9,900 annually. However, as a single person receiving services through the MBIWPD in my state, I can earn up to approximately $60,000 annually (the exact amount changes each year) and remain eligible for Medicaid as long as I meet the asset limitations. I qualify if I am employed full or part time. I am eligible for insurance through my employer, so my traditional preventive healthcare is covered by that policy. Insurance does not pay for long term care though. Medicaid pays for the personal care I need to remain an active member in my community.

But if I marry? A married couple can only have a joint income of approximately $81,000 annually to qualify for services.

I am authorized to receive 70 hours of home care each week. If I were to pay out of pocket for this care, it would cost me approximately $20/hour. That is $1,400 each week, or $72,800 a year. Just for personal care. That is more than my current annual salary, since I cannot earn more than $60,000 and still qualify for home care.

I have always said I will never put myself in a situation where my safety and security are dependent on another person. Part of it is my own independent stubborn streak, and part of it comes from conditioning from my parents who told me repeatedly as I was growing up how important it is that I be able to take care of myself. If I were to marry, I would need to find another job with a higher salary to cover the cost of my care, never mind my living expenses.

Sure, I could find a job that pays more than $100,00/year. Those jobs exist. I have the degrees and skills to be successful at those jobs. But as much as I complain about playing the Medicaid game (proving my disability every six months, tolerating the home visits from nurses and social workers to assess my needs), I play it because I need to. I am dependent on these services to live independently in my community where I am loved and valued, and can give love to those who are important to me.

That’s the love that matters most to me.

However, if anyone has any leads on “Mr. Right,” I’m not opposed to having some fun… 😉