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Practicing Pride

This post is written for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2015.  Please click the link to read other great posts written by bloggers around the world.

I first read Laura Hershey’s wonderful poem You Get Proud by Practicing when I was a college student. It was 1994, and the Americans with Disabilities Act was changing the physical landscape, opening opportunities for people with disabilities.

I was learning the law, and advocating for my civil rights. I asked for reasonable accommodations as I navigated my courses and clinical practicum settings. I led a group of students who advocated for increased physical access to buildings on campus. I wrote letters commending business owners who did a good job of incorporating access features and to those who did not comply with new codes.

I also made a mistake common among new advocates. I started too many of those conversations with “I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry for interrupting your day, but I just wanted to let you know your accessible parking space out front does not comply with the code.”

“I’m sorry to be a bother, but I wondered who I could speak to about your accessible restroom?”

I never realized I was apologizing until a friend commented on it one day in the summer of 1994. I was recuperating from orthopedic surgery, my foot and leg in a plaster cast which came up to the middle of my thigh. We were shopping at a local department store when I suddenly had an urgent need to find a bathroom. We rushed to the accessible rest room only to find it locked with a sign directing us to ask for the key at the courtesy desk. My friend banged on the door while I chased down an employee.

“I’m sorry, but I really need to get in the accessible restroom and the door is locked.”

It took them nearly four minutes to track down the key. Apparently, there were customers who would use the ample space to engage in questionable activities so the store decided it was best to make people ask permission to enter. On that day, I didn’t care why the door was locked. I just needed to get to a toilet.

After assisting me on the toilet, my friend asked, “Why do you always apologize when you are asking for access?”

I was stunned. Is this what I was doing? She pointed out other examples to me and I began to realize she was right.

The next week I went to meet with the Coordinator of Services for Students with Disabilities to talk about the upcoming semester. As I sat in her office, I noticed a new poster on the wall. For the first time, I read Laura’s powerful poem. You get proud by practicing; the line kept repeating in my head as I read.

I sat there questioning if I was truly proud of who I was, or maybe still a bit ashamed of needing to ask for accommodations. If I was ashamed or embarrassed to ask for or demand equal opportunity, why? I read the last stanza again and again.

Remember, you weren’t the one
who made you ashamed,
but you are the one
who can make you proud.
Just practice,
practice until you get proud, and once you are proud,
keep practicing so you won’t forget.
You get proud
by practicing.

I left the office that day with two things: a photocopy of the poem and a new resolve to practice. I vowed to stop apologizing for my disability, my difference, my need for assistance.

I wish I could tell you I kept the promise. But the truth is sometimes I get tired, and I forget to keep practicing. I find myself without physical strength or mental stamina and before I know it, the apology is slipping out of my mouth.

“I’m sorry to detain you, but perhaps you didn’t notice you are illegally parked in an access aisle?”

“I’m sorry, but do you think you could move that display so I could fit down the aisle?”

The difference is now I hear it and I am aware. Rather than making myself feel guilty, I remind myself there will be another opportunity to practice. I will encounter another barrier or obstacle which will allow me to practice advocacy. I will hear another stereotypical question from another stranger which will allow me to practice expressing pride in my abilities.

The truth is I AM proud! I am proud of the body I was given, even the contractures and diminished muscles. I am proud of the wheelchair which grants me freedom and independent mobility. I am proud of my ability to use language to convey my thoughts and desires. I am proud of those advocates who paved the way for me to have access to community supports and services. I am proud of the young advocates I meet who are demanding equal access in educational and vocational settings.

Practicing is critical. It reminds us not to be ashamed. Practicing gives us power, choices and options. Practicing tells those we encounter, “I believe in my right to be here and I will fight anyone who tries to deny me.”

Practice your pride today. And tomorrow. And the next day.

Keep practicing for as long as it takes. And I promise to keep practicing too.