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.

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The ADA @ 25: The Work Isn’t Over

This past Friday night, local disability organizations and the Self Advocacy Alliance gathered for a celebration and concert in honor of the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I was honored to be invited to attend the event and speak about the ADA prior to the band taking the stage. If you have ever been invited to speak before the entertainment at an event, you know the audience is really just being polite as they wait to listen to the music.

Friday night’s audience was wonderful. They were attentive, engaged and even applauded some key points! Someone asked if I would share my remarks on my blog. I usually don’t write out my speeches word for word, so the version I present is always a bit different than my notes. I’m not sure I said everything I wanted to say on Friday, but this is my best attempt to write down what I intended to say on Friday.

Communities across the United States are having ADA celebrations this month. Today is the first ever Disability Pride Parade in New York City. I wish I could be there with my friends who are traveling down the Hudson right now, but my recent wheelchair repairs made the trip impractical. I urge you to find out what is happening in your area, and learn more about what you can do to help further the vision of civil rights for people of all abilities.

The organizers of today’s event asked me to say a few words in recognition of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. This important civil rights legislation, which was signed into law in 1990 by former President George Bush, changed life for people with disabilities in many ways. Improvements in everyday life are all around us.

This park we are in has accessible parking, curb cuts, and accessible rest rooms. There is a ramp on the back of this stage which made it possible for me to wheel up here.

Many of us used public transportation to get here today – buses with lifts or paratransit. If you travel to another metropolitan area in the United States, their buses will be accessible too. Within the past decade, I have visited Little Rock, Arkansas; Salt Lake City,Utah; Ames, Iowa; Long Beach, California; and Tampa, Florida. I was able to ride public buses in each location.

When I was in those cities, I stayed in hotels. All of the hotels were relatively new construction, built within the past 15 years or so. My hotel rooms had elevated toilets, grab bars, hand held showers, and strobe lights which flashed if someone rang the doorbell.

Access to technology has improved life for many of us who live with disabilities. Closed captioning for television programs, and live captioning Internet broadcasts or webinars mean the Deaf or hearing impaired can participate. Cell phones and texting put communication with others right in our own hands. Braille elevator key pads and ATMs with audible signals increase independence for the Blind and visually impaired.

I first came to Albany in 1991 when I started college at The College of St. Rose. I learned how to be an advocate while I was in college. The ADA was new – and it was widely thought this law would change the world for people with disabilities. We would have protections and legal recourse if we faced discrimination! Reasonable accommodation became the new buzz phrase for us.

I studied Communication Sciences and Disorders because I had decided I wanted to be a speech-language pathologist when I grew up. When I started college, the school had four residence halls which were accessible. The only buildings with automatic doors were the Campus Center and Albertus Hall, the main classroom building. We used the service elevator in the kitchen to get to and from the main dining hall. And the elevator in St. Joseph’s Hall, where the majority of professor offices were, had a gate you had to close before the elevator would move. Many times I found myself stranded on the third floor because someone had taken the elevator down to the first floor and not closed the gate. When my friends and I walked downtown, either down Madison or Western Avenue, we weren’t able to stay on the same side of the street because not every intersection had curb cuts on all four corners. So, we would zig zag downtown, crossing at certain streets so we would have access to the sidewalk. I never took a public bus until I started using STAR paratransit services in 1993.

I was fortunate. As a child, I had parents and siblings who told me time and time again I was capable, I was smart, I was competent – I could do anything I wanted to. I grew up knowing I would go to college and get a job. It was what was expected of me.

Sadly, that is not the expectation often held by others when it comes to people with disabilities. When President Bush signed the ADA, he said the walls of inequity for people with disabilities would come down. Many have – but there are many more which need to fall.

Just look at employment. In New York State, the percentage of people with disabilities who are working age (21-64 years old) who have full time employment lasting at least a year or more is 20%. Compare that to the percentage of their non-disabled peers – which is 56%.¹

Full time employment is not attainable for everyone for a variety of reasons. If we look at employment – full or part time – for working age people with disabilities in New York, the percentage increases to 32%. One third of working age adults with disabilities in New York have some employment. That may sound good until you hear that 76%, or three quarters, of working age non-disabled adults in New York are employed either full or part time.

Employment affects everything. And I’m glad the federal and state governments are trying to create policies which increase employment for people with disabilities. Without jobs, many of us wouldn’t be able to live where we live, or drive our own vehicles.  We wouldn’t be taxpayers with discretionary income. We wouldn’t have the sense of self-esteem and purpose many of us have gained by engaging in activities which provide value to ourselves and others.

The ADA has made it possible for musicians, like the ones you’re about to hear in Flame, to tour and pursue their passion. The ADA, through the Olmstead decision, has made it possible for people with disabilities to live in their communities where they belong instead of in nursing homes or institutions. Community based supports and services, like the Consumer Directed Personal Assistance I use every day, make it possible for people like me and you to live in their own homes.

But no law can ever legislate attitude change. It is up to all of us to continue to educate and advocate for our rights – to show others our potential so they realize everyone has value, everyone deserves respect. Whether or not we want to be, we are examples of what is possible. The adaptations and accommodations we demand improve not just our lives, but the lives of those who will come after us. I promise to continue speaking up for all of us, and I hope you will do the same.

Congratulations to all of you for being ambassadors for people with disabilities here in the Capital Region. Keep up the good work and enjoy the concert!

 

¹Statistics related to employment in other states may be found at http://www.disabilitystatistics.org. For this speech, I searched using results from the American Community Survey.

Day 1 – Travel adventures

Today is Day One of my 2015 Australia Adventure. I like giving it a name, as if it is something momentous. Because, really, it is. Twenty five years ago, people told me I’d never be able to go once. I have to be honest and admit it feels really good to be proving them wrong, yet again!

My sister Sandy brought me to the airport in Albany. Thank goodness she did because she had a Rotary pin in her purse. Guess who forgot hers at home?!

The final weight of my suitcase was less than the 50 pound weight limit required by Qantas. It is 46.5 pounds, which means I have room to bring back 3 pounds of Cadbury and a small container of Vegemite. Yeah!

My first flight took me to Baltimore. I spent a relaxing hour people watching and eating crab cakes. I have not seen another wheelchair user thus far, which I find interesting. Usually I see a few in airports. We do the “Good – your chair’s still working” smile and nod as we pass on the way to our respective gates.

My chair survived the first flight intact. Thank you Southwest Airlines! I’m not getting any compensation for endorsing them, but if you are a person with a disability who needs to fly in the USA, I encourage you to fly Southwest whenever you can. Their fleet is comprised of Boeing 737 aircraft, which means larger and unobstructed cargo bay doors. This means your large power chair fits easier than on a small regional jet.

On my flight, I observed the peanut eating behavior of my fellow passengers. I identified three major patterns:

1. The Pourer – This is the person who opens the bag and pours it into his mouth.

2. The Scooper – This is the person who pours a handful of peanuts into a mound on her hand and then scoops it into her mouth.

3. The Picker – This is the person who takes each peanut out of the bag one at a time. I have yet to see a male picker.

My friend Ros suggested a fourth option – The Sucker. This is the person who sucks the salt off the peanuts before chewing and swallowing them. I didn’t observe this on my flight, but the travel day is still young.

Right now I’m off to catch my flight to LA where I will meet my travel partner Kelly. Let’s hope the next flight is just as great as the first!

***Today’s post is brought to you courtesy of my cousin Amy. Thank you Amy for supporting this adventure! This is also the first time I’ve written and posted from my phone. I apologize for any errors I’ve missed in the editing process.