This breaks my heart, as I remember all too well what it felt like to be on the receiving end of bullying and harassment when I was in school. I remember being in elementary school, when kids made fun of me for going to the Resource Room. I remember being in middle school, when classmates mocked my stutter. I remember being in high school, when the male students who sat behind me in science class passed me sexually harassing notes. These and other incidents created huge damage to my self-esteem; and yet they were minor compared to the horrific bullying and harassment that has been happening in American schools since Election Day.
Typically, I make a rule not to post anything of a political nature on my blog, and I thought long and hard about whether or not to write about my thoughts concerning the rise of school bullying since the election. Eventually, I decided that it would be appropriate to write about this topic, as I am not criticizing the President-elect’s political views, but his behavior. I also felt that it was important to send out a message of hope and reassurance to any of my readers who have been harassed since the election, especially on the basis of disability, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.
First of all, I would like to reassure all of my readers that just because a bully got elected, it does NOT suddenly mean that bullying, harassment, bigotry, misogyny, ableism and assault are now acceptable. While it can be tempting to conclude from the results of this election that bullying is the way to get what you want, it is important to remember that there were a number of factors that led to this election turning out the way it did. Many of these factors include low voter turnout, dissatisfaction at the current state of our country, false news stories being spread via social media, and the inability of the Democratic party to nominate a candidate who appealed to young voters and racial minorities the way Barack Obama did. People did not vote for Donald Trump because he is a bully, they voted for him despite him being a bully. Despite what some may believe, there was never any question as to whether it was acceptable for Donald to bully people with disabilities. Everyone universally believed he was wrong to do so. Rather, the question was, “Does the fact that he bullied a disabled man make him unqualified to be president?” As it turned out, enough people answered “no” that he got elected. This makes me sad and disheartened, and it may make you feel the same way. However, keep in mind that people had a variety of reasons for voting the way they did, and just because they voted for Donald does not mean that they condone all of his behaviors. All voters, whether they voted for Donald, Hillary, or someone else, weighed the various issues and made their decision based on what was the most important to them. For me, the most important issues this election were disability rights and anti-bullying. For other people, the issues of insurance or campaign finance reform were more important.
Secondly, it is important to remember that although Donald won the electoral college, Hillary won the popular vote. She received 2.5 million more votes than he did, and he is only going to be President because of a technicality in our Constitution. And let’s not forget that half of Americans eligible to vote chose not to vote in this election. When you combine them with the people who voted for Hillary as well as the people who voted for Gary Johnson or another candidate, the results show that over 75% of Americans did NOT vote for Donald Trump. Therefore, 75% of Americans chose NOT to let a bully become President. Keep that in mind.
Finally, I am going to redirect you to a blog article that I wrote last autumn, entitled “Your Life Matters.” I thought it was appropriate to post a link to it again, given the current situation in America and around the world.
In the past, I have written articles about celebrities with ADHD and other disabilities. Since this year, 2016, is an election year in the United States, I decided to write another one about politicians with disabilities.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served as President of the United States of America from 1933 to 1945, had polio, which made him unable to walk. He used a wheelchair to get around. Roosevelt’s accomplishments include winning the second World War and ending the Great Depression. He was not comfortable being known as a person with a disability, and always asked to be photographed from the waist up, which was possible because most American homes did not have televisions yet.
President John F. Kennedy had ADHD and took Ritalin. He also had a number of other physical health conditions. He was not open about his diagnosis, perhaps due to the stigma that was even greater in the 1960’s than today. As President, he established the Peace Corps, prevented a nuclear war, and made significant progress in protecting civil rights of minorities and people with disabilities. He also holds the distinction of being America’s first Catholic President.
Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) has a number of physical disabilities as a result of an injury when she served in Iraq. This injury caused Duckworth to lose both of her legs and damaged her right arm. She is the first woman with a disability to be elected to Congress. She currently serves on the Armed Services Committee and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. She has sponsored over thirty bills, including Get the Lead Out of Schools Act and Counterterrorism Act of 2016.
President Woodrow Wilson had dyslexia, a learning disability which made it difficult for him to learn to read as a child. At the encouragement of his father, he took up debate and public speaking to compensate for his disability. This led to his interest in politics. So, the next time you are tempted to think that nothing good can come from having a disability, remember that Wilson would never have become President if he didn’t have dyslexia! His accomplishments include signing the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote and establishing the Federal Reserve Act.
These are just a few of the many American politicians with disabilities. Still, the government is one area that is greatly underrepresented by people with disabilities. This is unfortunate, as we could benefit from having more elected officials who know first hand what it is like to live with a disability, and to bring their first-hand knowledge to creating laws that effect the disability community.
If you are a person with a disability who is thinking about running for office someday, I hope that the stories of the politicians listed here will inspire you with the knowledge that you, too, can make a difference!
Over the past several days, (July 12-14, 2016) I had the honor of being a staff member at the 2016 Massachusetts Youth Leadership Forum in Bridgewater, MA.
Youth Leadership Forum, or YLF, as it is often called, is a conference for young adults with disabilities who are transitioning to adulthood. The delegates are students who are either going to be seniors in high school in the fall, or who have just graduated high school this past spring. Youth who have attended YLF twice as a delegate and are now attending college or are employed serve as peer leaders. There are at least three peer leaders for each group consisting of 6-8 delegates.
Each group also had two or three staff captains and at least one PCA to support the youth. The small group discussions were led by the peer leaders, and the staff were there to add support when necessary. This was my second year as a staff captain.
This year, each of the groups was assigned a color. I was in the orange group, which was a very fitting name, given the fiery energy and passion of the individuals in our group. I was truly moved by their enthusiasm, their spirit, and their desire to inspire others and to be inspired themselves. These young adults represented a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, religions, home/family situations, and disabilities.
However, the one thing they all shared in common was their zeal, their determination, their wish to make the world a better place, their view that they were more than just their disabilities, and their affirmation that they were unique people.
The past three days have filled me with so much hope for this generation and have made me proud to be part of such a wonderful experience and community. When I left for YLF on Tuesday, I was hoping that I would inspire the youth. I had no idea just how much they would inspire me as well.
I miss them already, but like I told them at our final group meeting, it’s not the end, it’s just the beginning. It’s the beginning of new friendships and of a lifetime of fighting for the rights of people with disabilities.
Some may tell you that people with Asperger’s lack empathy, but this is a misconception that could not be further from the truth. I recently had an experience that made me realize that it is possible for Aspies to be extremely empathetic, caring, and kind hearted.
As regular readers of my blog know, I recently said goodbye to a very special childhood mentor, teacher, and friend, Sally Maxwell. Last week, I lost yet another of my childhood mentors. Polly Dunn, who taught me dance from childhood through high school and who was a lifelong friend, passed away one week ago today.
After hearing the news of Polly’s death, I spent the next several hours calling, texting, and Facebook messaging many people from my hometown who knew Polly and mourning for her with them. All of a sudden, I got a message from my friend Kirsti. Kirsti is a 21-year-old with Asperger’s who I have had the pleasure of getting to know and forming a deep friendship with over the past two years. In the shock and sadness of Polly’s death, I had completely forgotten that I had promised Kirsti earlier in the day that I’d talk with her later that night.
I messaged Kirsti back, told her what had happened, and asked if we could possibly talk some other time. I also added that it was especially hard for me since it was so soon after Sally’s death.
Kirsti replied, “I know you feel sad now and want to cry, but instead you should be grateful that you had Sally and Polly in your life. And they loved you very much, and they wouldn’t want you to be sad. You need to be strong and thank God for having them in your life. And remember, someday you will see them again, but in the meantime, they want you to live a happy and healthy life while you are still on this earth.”
I was truly touched by Kirsti’s words. She was able to make me feel better and put things in perspective better than anyone else I had talked to that night. I thanked her, and she was eager to cheer me up and make me feel better. She changed the subject to a topic that she knew was going to make me happy, and thanks to her, I was able to smile and laugh again.
So, the next time someone tells you that people with Asperger’s lack empathy, tell them to think again. Aspies struggle with many things; however, they are capable of feeling emotions very deeply. I have seen proof of this many times with Kirsti. Despite her challenges, she also has many strengths. She is a gifted writer and has a great imagination. Not only is she good with words, but she is also adept at writing fiction about situations that she has not experienced herself. That is something that I have never been able to do as well as she does.
All of us have strengths and weaknesses, and I am grateful that I had people in my life like Sally and Polly who helped me realize my strengths and that I am so much more than my weaknesses. I hope that I can have a positive impact on Kirsti and other young people like her as well.
One week ago today, Polly Dunn, my childhood dance teacher passed away. Those of you who have read “Distracted Girl” know what a wonderful role model and major influence on my life she was. She was more than just a dance teacher. She was like a second mother to all of us dance students.
In addition to my ADHD, I also had some gross motor delays and poor coordination as a child. This made it difficult for me to participate in gym class, play sports, or do any other athletic activity. My parents signed me up for dance lessons, hoping that it would improve my coordination. Dance was challenging for me as well, and if I had studied with a more traditional dance teacher who emphasized structure and competition, it is likely that I would have quit dance at an early age and never returned.
However, Polly was far from a traditional dance teacher. Many dance teachers have competitions and give awards at recitals to their best dancers every year. Polly, on the other hand, often said, “I don’t believe that dance should be competitive. If you want to compete, play basketball or some other sport. At my dance school, the goal is not to be better than all the other dancers. It’s about being the best dancer that you can be, and it goes for each and every one of you.”
Polly often came up with creative ways to include dancers of all levels and abilities. For instance, one year she choreographed a dance to Whitney Houston’s version of the national anthem as the opening recital number. The more advanced dancers performed a complicated dance with lots of leaps, twists, and turns on the stage. Meanwhile, I marched down one of the aisles of the auditorium carrying an American flag. Another dancer with disabilities, Julie, marched down the other aisle, also with a flag. When we reached the stage, the other dancers were jumping and turning so much that no one even noticed Julie and me sneaking on the stage behind them. When it got to the line, “our flag was still there,” all the other dancers lay down on the stage and Julie and I waved our flags. Everyone applauded at the display of patriotism, and Julie and I felt proud to be a part of that moment.
Another instance of Polly’s inclusivity happened when I first danced on pointe. Like all young ballerinas, I was eager to progress to this exciting level. Pointe is performed wearing special toe shoes, and it requires the dancer to have taken several years of dance instruction so that her quadriceps muscles are strong enough to support her. Most girls are ready to dance on pointe at age 12, however, due to my poor coordination; I was still dancing in soft ballet shoes for beginners when I was 15. Eventually, Polly told me was ready to train for pointe. I worked hard, and Polly finally told me I was ready to dance on pointe late in May. Since it was only a few weeks before the recital, Polly didn’t have time to teach me a dance on pointe to perform that year. However, she found a way to accommodate me once again. She had the high school seniors who were graduating dance the finale, and then all of us dancers who were on pointe came out boureeing on our toes, formed a semi-circle around the graduating senior, and gracefully stretched out our arms in gesture to her. That was Polly’s way of including me on pointe in the recital. She never told any of the other dancers that she did so especially for me, so that I wouldn’t feel stigmatized or embarrassed. Another dance teacher might have waited until the following year for me to dance on pointe in the recital, however, Polly knew how hard I had worked and was eager to include me that year.
Those are just two of the many examples of how Polly sought to include all her dancers, regardless of ability. It is only recently that other dance schools are learning the importance of what Polly knew all along. Last year, I gave a presentation to dance teachers at the Boston Ballet’s adaptive dance program, a special program for dancers with disabilities. I gave them tips on how to make their school inclusive to all, and I talked about how Polly made her dance school inclusive to me and others.
Goodbye, Polly Dunn. We will never forget how you taught us not only to dance, but also to love and the importance of helping others. Now you are in Heaven dancing with God and the angels, and teaching the little cherubim their plies and arabesques.
Those of you who have read “Distracted Girl” will recall the character Martha Shipley: my teacher and speech therapist. Her real name was Sally Maxwell, and she sadly passed away on Friday, February 5, 2015.
Sally began working with me when I was three years old, and continued to work with me into my teen years. I had a severe speech impediment and stutter when I was younger. It was so bad that hardly anyone could understand me. Sally patiently took the time to work with me; teaching me the techniques I needed to learn to speak clearly. She told me, “Becky, if you try hard enough and believe in yourself, you can accomplish just about anything.” She was confident that someday I would be able to speak fluently even without trying. I did not believe her, and neither did my parents. However, she proved to be correct, because today I speak completely fluently without a trace of a stutter.
Sally did more than simply tell me to believe in myself. She believed in me, and sometimes her belief in me was all I needed to make it through my stressful adolescent years. She constantly reminded me that I was not just a person with special needs, but a person with many gifts and strengths as well. She encouraged me to use my strengths to compensate for my weaknesses. Because Sally believed in me, I came to believe in myself.
Sally was cheerful, warm, calm, and patient. She was bubbly and optimistic, and simply being around her was enough to lift my spirits. She had something positive to say about me no matter what. Even after she moved to another state when I was 16, we continued to keep in touch. She also offered some assistance to me when I was working on “Distracted Girl,” and was one of the first to buy a copy when it was published.
Today, I am not only an author, but I also work for The Federation for Children with Special Needs, where I am the Youth with Disabilities Coordinator. I do outreach to youth with disabilities who are transitioning to adulthood, and I present a workshop on self-determination and self-advocacy. In each presentation, I mention Sally and the lessons she taught me about believing in myself. When I am talking with a young person with special needs whom I feel needs some extra encouragement, I find myself sharing the same words with her that Sally gave me many years ago. Thanks to Sally, I know that sometimes all you need to make it through is to have someone (outside your family) who believes in you.
There is so much more I could say about Sally, but it would make this article much too long; so I’ll simply say that if you want to learn more about her and her impact on my life, read “Distracted Girl.”
Farewell, Sally. You may be gone from this earth, but you will never be forgotten. Now you are an angel in Heaven with God. May you come to know as much happiness and peace on the other side as you brought to all of us when you were on Earth.
Posted January 25, 2016on:
“Don’t think of yourself as having asthma. Think of yourself as breathing in a very special way!”
“So you’re on medication for your allergies? Aren’t you afraid you’ll get addicted?”
“I guess chronic back pain is now the ‘trendy’ condition to have.”
“We all have days when we feel a little lactose intolerant.”
“I don’t believe epilepsy exists. If I can make it through the day without having a seizure, why can’t you?”
“You’re just using your high blood pressure as an excuse for not trying your best in school or work.”
“You know, it’s okay that you have Celiac’s disease. That doesn’t make you any less of a person.”
“If you just tried hard enough and had a positive attitude, you wouldn’t have eczema!”
“I don’t like the way you call yourself diabetic. It makes it seem like your dietary issues are the only important thing about you.”
“Aren’t you worried that by treating your daughter’s poor vision with eyeglasses, you’ll be further stigmatizing her?”
“You’re too smart to have irritable bowel syndrome.”
“But you don’t look allergic to peanuts!”
Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “That’s absurd! No one would say something so ridiculous and offensive to people with those medical conditions!” Just go back and read the list again, and in place of every condition named, imagine that instead it said ADHD, anxiety, depression, OCD, Autism, Asperger’s, dyslexia, learning disabilities, or any other neurological disability.
For instance, “Don’t think of yourself as having dyslexia. Think of yourself as learning to read in a very special way!”
“So you’re on medication for your ADHD? Aren’t you afraid you’ll get addicted?”
“I guess Asperger’s is now the ‘trendy’ condition to have.”
You will see that each item on the list is one that is often said about neurological disabilities. People often make these kind of comments without realizing how inappropriate, offensive, and absurd they are being.
Eczema can’t be fixed with a positive attitude, no matter how hard you try. The same is true for learning disabilities, yet it doesn’t stop people from suggesting that someone “fix” his learning disability with a positive attitude.
It would be offensive to tell a person with epilepsy that you don’t believe her condition exists, just because you don’t have it. It’s just as offensive to say the same thing to a person with ADHD; yet people often don’t realize it.
You can’t tell that a person has a peanut allergy just by looking at him, so it would be silly to say, “You don’t look allergic to peanuts.” You also can’t tell that someone has Autism just by looking at him; so why do some people think it’s acceptable to tell someone that he doesn’t look Autistic?
When someone tells others that she is diabetic, no one thinks that she is necessarily saying that her dietary issues are the only important thing about her. So, why, when someone says that she is dyslexic, do people think she’s saying that her learning issues are the only important thing about her?
No one has days when they are “a little lactose intolerant.” Either you are lactose intolerant, or you aren’t. Similarly, you either have OCD or you don’t; you are never “a little OCD today.”
Neurological disabilities are not quirks or excuses or trends or fads. They are medical conditions, just as asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, and every other condition listed above. Yet, for some reason, people think it is fine to make comments about neurological disabilities that they would never dream of saying for physical conditions.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that anyone ought to make the same kind of ridiculous, absurd comments about physical conditions that they do about neurological ones. Rather, I am saying that people should not make those comments about neurological disabilities, either.
It would be wonderful if we lived in a world where having a diagnosis of ADHD or dyslexia or Asperger’s was no more of a stigma than diabetes or asthma or high blood pressure. People with neurological disabilities would be viewed as simply having a medical condition. They wouldn’t be thought of as stupid or lazy or weird or looking for pity or not trying hard enough. Their differences would just be seen as differences, and nothing more. Parents wouldn’t be blamed for their children’s Autism or learning disability any more than they would be blamed for their children’s epilepsy or peanut allergies. Taking Ritalin for ADHD would be viewed as being just as acceptable as wearing glasses to treat poor vision.
I sincerely believe that one day, neurological disabilities will be just as accepted as physical conditions. However, there’s only one way that we’ll reach that day, and that’s through education. Those of us with neurological disabilities, as well as our families, friends, and professionals, need to speak up. We need to let everyone know that aside from our diagnosis, we’re no different than the rest of the world; and that we deserve to be treated with as much as dignity, respect, and trust as anyone else.