How a 17-Minute Phone Call With Temple Grandin Changed Me

temple_grandinTemple Grandin will speak at the Von Braun Center Concert Hall on Tuesday, March 7, 2017, at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $35.00 and can be purchased here. The evening will begin with a book signing at 5:30 – buy one of her books on site or bring your own copy. Her speech will begin at 7, followed by a Q&A with representatives from five organizations who are working to expand opportunities for people with autism spectrum disorders and other diagnoses into our workplaces and our community. If you haven’t seen it before, watch Temple’s Ted Talk here.

When my phone rang, I was unloading groceries from my car. I didn’t know the number and normally would have let the call go to voice mail until I could finish what I was doing. But for some reason, I shifted the groceries sacks and said, “Hello?”

I knew who it was after she uttered about four words.

Temple Grandin was on the other end of the phone line.

I panicked. I was scared, intimidated and slightly star-struck. I’ve been watching endless hours of Temple’s speeches, read her books on autism and am breathlessly awaiting her visit to Huntsville next week. And here she was, on the other end of the phone, asking me what Huntsville is like and what we hope to accomplish after her talk.

I was intimidated to talk with her, not because she has autism but because she is one of the most accomplished women in the world. Time Magazine listed her among the 100 Most Influential People of 2010 thanks to her achievements as a scientist and advocate for people on the autism spectrum. A biopic about her life, Temple Grandin, won multiple Emmy© Awards. She’s written dozens of books and is recognized the world over for her brilliant design innovations used extensively by cattlemen and ranchers around the globe. I’ve talked to a few celebrities in my work at Merrimack Hall but none have left me as tongue-tied and awe struck as Temple Grandin.

I’m one of those “social yackity-yacks” that she references in her speeches. I immediately began trying to moderate my speech…the tempo, the volume, the tone. I thought of all my friends with autism who have given me feedback, sometimes verbal and sometimes nonverbal; feedback that tells me my delivery can be hard for them to take. They tell me, “Slow down.” “Be still while you’re talking to me.” “Keep your hands to yourself.” I tried to temper myself so that I could communicate effectively in a manner that I assumed she would prefer.

“Different, not less,” is what Temple says. I’ve always assumed she was referencing people with autism and other intellectual disabilities, that it was them who are different but never less. But in the first few minutes of that phone call, I realized it is me who’s different, not Temple.

I use 20 words when five would suffice. I muddle my message with excessive body language, intense eye contact, rapid speech and frequent, unexpected changes in topic. I dilute the effectiveness of my communication by going off on tangential rants, mixing emotion with facts when trying to persuade others or win them over.

temple-quote

Halfway through our 17 minute phone call (yes, I checked the phone log to be sure how long I had actually been able to talk with her), I started to relax. She asked me lots of questions about our community and the purpose of our event. When I told her that we hope to motivate and inspire our community of thought innovators to find new ways to integrate people with autism spectrum disorders into our workplaces, she was enthusiastic and excited. She told me, “Good job!” when I described the panel of local scientists, advocates and employers who will be asking her questions after her speech. She said, “I look forward to meeting you,” when the call was coming to an end. When we hung up, I was elated…I did it! I managed to carry on a conversation with someone I revere and won her over despite my communication disorder.

Because yes, I’m the one with the communication disorder, not Temple. She has learned, after years of diligent practice and observation, to tailor her preferred communication style to match what we call “normal.” She has mastered the art of listening and uses language in a measured, appropriate and careful way that allows her to connect without nuance or hidden agendas or emotional baggage that should have no place in our communication with each other. She says what she means and she means what she says.

I can’t say that about myself all the time, as my communication is too heavily influenced by ego. I’m too busy preparing my response to someone to truly listen to what they are saying in the moment. I have trouble zoning in on the most important point of whatever I’m saying because random thoughts and subtle manipulations are constantly zigzagging through my brain, bursting through my filters and muddying the water of my point. I rely on emotion, not facts, too often. I tell myself that I’m an effective speaker because I am exceedingly verbal but 17 minutes with Temple Grandin left me with the stark realization that it’s not Temple who’s different…it’s me.

Temple says, “Different…not less.” I always applied that sentence to the people with special needs I work with, never to myself. But the call with her showed me that deciding who and what is “different” is malleable and depends on your perspective. To me, people with autism are “different” but to them, I’m the one with deficiencies. When you boil it down to its most elemental message, “Different…not less,” applies to all of us. Each of us is different from the other and none of us is less.

For 10 years now, I’ve said that we are all more alike than we are different and that we all have special needs. Thanks to one conversation with Temple, I realize that there’s so much more to it than that. We are ALL different in subtle and obvious ways. Each of us is born with our own unique set of challenges and dysfunctions that are further ingrained through our social interactions. Each of us has a particular slant through which we see each other, the world and our places in it. It will be a better world when we all learn that Temple isn’t different, nor is anyone with a physical or intellectual disability.

WE ARE ALL DIFFERENT. AND NONE OF US IS LESS.

What problems could we solve if we approached everything with that mindset? What new friends could we make? What new ways of doing things or what new insights could we uncover if we all just accepted the reality that no two of us are the same and none of us is perfect. No one is right and no one else is wrong in their approach or thought process or communication style because we are all unique, born exactly the way we were supposed to be.

 

I am different. And so are you. But I am not less and neither are you. If I learned this much about myself from 17 minutes with Temple, I can’t wait to learn even more powerful insights from her next week.

temple-grandin-cow

 

 

What I Learned About Being White When I Visited South Africa

During apartheid, the government of South Africa enforced racial identification through laws like the Population Regulation Act. The races are still broadly referred to as white or Afrikan, black or native, and colored for anyone of mixed heritage, although these terms no longer indicate inferiority to whites. 

Our black guide drove us through the streets of Soweto, one of many townships where, from the early 19th century until Mandela’s election in 1994, millions of blacks were forced to live in abject poverty under the heavy hand of apartheid leveled by the Afrikaners (white descents of the Dutch who settled at Cape Town in 1652). We visited Mandela’s home and strolled down the vibrant streets, alive with the sounds of drumming and gum boot dancing. When we stopped for lunch, I was surprised that the food on the buffet was almost identical to my favorite southern dishes, albeit with different names – fried chicken, sweet potatoes, turnip greens with pepper sauce, black eyed peas with relish, tomato and cucumber salad, hush puppies and pork ribs.

We saw areas of Soweto where thousands of people still live in abject poverty in corrugated tin shacks with no running water or electricity but we also saw areas with lovely brick homes, new schools, kids playing soccer on well-maintained fields. Even given the areas that still bear testament to centuries of oppression, Soweto is a thriving, alive and joyous place where you encounter smiling faces, music, dancing and the vivid colors of the South African flag on every street.

I’m an inquisitive traveller, not afraid to ask pointed questions so I can learn about different cultures.  Prior to my trip to South Africa, I read several books, including “A History of South Africa” by Leonard Thompson. I re-read “Long Walk to Freedom” and re-watched the movie. I re-watched “Invictus.” I had already asked our guide a million questions but as we left the site of the Soweto Uprising and headed to The Apartheid Museum, I asked him, “So, do you just hate white people?”

I asked this because I had to know…because I couldn’t imagine that his answer would be anything but a resounding, “Yes, I do.” Instead, he answered, “No, I don’t hate white people. Madiba taught us to look forwards, not backwards. Hating white people wouldn’t do anything to improve my future. They are my brothers and sisters now.”

There were times during the day when I thought, with outrage and moral superiority, “Apartheid was horrible!” but I would immediately remind myself that we had enslaved blacks, that before the Civil Rights Movement we segregated them in the same brutal manner and today, African Americans still experience disparity and discrimination, in both overt and subtle ways. I cried later that night when it dawned on me why the food at lunch had been so familiar to my southern palette; of course, our cuisine would reflect that of South Africa because it was us who kidnapped innocent Africans, sold them into slavery and made them cook for us in our plantations.

I thought that maybe the guide was an anomaly, just one person with a generous heart but when I posed the same question to our guide the next day, her answer was the same. “No,” she said, “I don’t hate white people. Apartheid is in the past.”

On the safari leg of our trip, I asked our Afrikan field guides about apartheid, expecting them to give me the same answer white folks here give…there isn’t a problem with racism anymore. I was wrong.

One guide said, “What my grandparents did to the blacks was abominable and I hate our history. But I have to acknowledge the reality of apartheid and its lingering effects. It’s my generation’s job to make sure that the mistakes of the past are never forgotten or repeated.”

A black field tracker told me, “I see a different future for myself and my children than the one my parents and grandparents had. I don’t hold today’s white people responsible for what was done to us but I’m not going to let them off the hook either.” Another white field guide said, “We have to make amends for the wrongs that were done to the blacks.”

The white people’s open acknowledgement of their culpability and the black people’s willingness to forgive stands in stark contrast to our race relations. Maybe part of the outrage African Americans feel is because white people have never fully acknowledged that we robbed them of their native African heritage, that we have appropriated those parts of their native culture that we like and discarded those that don’t serve us, and that they are still treated differently because of the color of their skin. Perhaps if we honestly asked them to forgive us we could move towards reconciliation. But people only ask for forgiveness when they believe they’ve done something wrong and apparently, many white Americans don’t think they have done anything – collectively or individually – that requires forgiveness.

I support our brave police officers and do not believe we should judge the whole of law enforcement by the actions of a few. I believe that black lives matter but I do not condone violence against others in the name of this movement. I believe that the racial disparity that exists in America is rooted in white people’s inability to understand the experience of racism and in black people’s indignation at our unwillingness to acknowledge it exists.

I am the beneficiary of white privilege. If you don’t know what that is or if you refuse to accept that it exists, read this post from my favorite blogger: How I Discovered I Am White by Janelle Hanchett at Renegade Mothering. Or watch any of the youtube videos of the famous “Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes” seminar led by Jane Elliott, a blunt and in-your-face exercise Ms. Elliott first used in her third grade classroom in 1968, after Martin Luther King’s death.

A few weeks ago, a white woman with Down syndrome told me that she “doesn’t like black people.” When I pointed out that there are many African Americans in my program for people with special needs that are her friends, she insisted that she likes them personally but doesn’t like black people in general. Her horrified parents say they don’t think this way or talk about black people in a disparaging way at home. So where did she get this message? Some people assume that because a person has an intellectual disability, they can’t understand everything being said in front of them. But they can. And she’s clearly gotten the message from somewhere. This example alone should be enough to convince even the most diehard, “Racism doesn’t exist anymore” defender that yes, it does. Big time.

I watched Michael Moore’s newest film, “Where to Invade Next” (if you haven’t seen the film, Mr. Moore explores innovative public policies from other countries). The segment about how the Germans teach the history of the Holocaust in their schools is particularly relevant, given the events of the past week.

The Germans don’t pretend that their country didn’t murder six million innocent Jews. Instead, they actively teach their shameful collective history in an honest and direct way beginning in kindergarten. Mr. Moore makes the strong argument that simply by acknowledging the truth of Germany’s history of genocide, every day and in every possible way, Germans are insuring that such a thing can never happen in their country again. He says that we as Americans should acknowledge the truth of our painful history, too. He ends this segment with this: (paraphrase) I am an American. I live in a great nation that was born in genocide and built on the backs of slaves.

Why is it so hard for us to admit the truth of that statement? When the first settlers landed on this continent, the Native American population was over 12 million. By 1900, their population was barely 237,000. Our founding fathers built a great democracy at the expense of millions of native inhabitants. And then we allowed slavery to exist for 258 years. Our nation has practiced our own version of apartheid since the first European settlers arrived in 1607. Until we white folks can own up to that, teach it openly and honestly to our children and remind ourselves of these injustices every day, we will never be able to move forward from our shameful collective history the way the Germans have. We can do better than the white-washed version of history we teach in our schools. Just having Black History Month isn’t enough.

What can I, as a privileged white woman, do to heal the divide between black and white? I can be aware every minute of every day that I benefit from the color of my skin. I can look around my community for ways I can help level the playing field for African Americans, just as I do for people with special needs. I can ask the leaders of my area’s black community what they need people like me to do. I can use my voice, my influence and my many advantages to advocate for equality for everyone.

And I can pray for the day when the color of my skin won’t give me an advantage I haven’t earned.

 

 

 

Dear Candidates: The Minority Group You’ve Forgotten

Disclaimer: Except where otherwise noted (phrases appearing in blue are links to information that corroborates my statements), this post reflects my opinions. And we all know about opinions…

Dear Candidates:

You are presenting me with a huge dilemma. According to the polls, I’m not alone, as many of my fellow Americans are holding their noses at the thought of voting for either of you.

Mr. Trump, when you read from a prepared speech, you almost have me…but then you go off on a tangential rant or send tweets that make you sound like a school yard bully. You are definitely not a slick, teleprompter politician, which probably explains your appeal to millions of Americans.

Mrs. Clinton, you lost me back in 1992 with the “cookies and tea” comment and cemented my distaste when you “stood by your man” throughout his sexual exploits. You even went so far as to criticize Monica Lewinsky, a 22-year-old young woman who, had she been working in corporate America, could have charged her boss with sexual harassment and had him fired. Even worse in my mind, you are a career politician, someone who has lived on the government dole your entire adult life. That in and of itself makes you untrustworthy, to me. I think it’s highly doubtful that you would have ever been successful in the private sphere…or maybe you would have been the CEO of some huge corporation only to end up being charged with embezzlement or insider trading or some other scheme to defraud average folks.

Being stuck between two distasteful choices, I’ve come up with a challenge for you. Whichever one of you is able to tackle this challenge just might earn my vote, and the vote of millions of Americans who have been left out of our political discussion for far too long.

What is this game-changing challenge? One of you should reach out to the largest minority group in our country and win over their support. It’s surprising that neither of you has figured this out yet. I mean, come on…with all your highly paid operatives and advisors, how have both of you managed to miss the votes of this huge percentage of the population?

So I’ll be the one to break it down for you:

17% of the US is Hispanic
13% of the US is African-American
5% of the US is LGBTQ
5.6% of the US is Asian
2.2% of the US is Jewish
1% or less of the US is Muslim

What minority group have you missed?

19% of the US has a physical or intellectual disability.

Yes, you heard me…19%. That’s 56.7 million people or 1 in 5 Americans. Add to that their families, their friends, their employers, their caregivers and more…and suddenly we’re talking about a significant portion of the US population.

And the beautiful thing about this minority group is that is crosses all other minority boundaries. Disability does not recognize gender or race or religion or sexual orientation or socio-economic group. Disability appears in poverty and in wealth, in black and in Asian, in gay and straight. If either of you can figure out how to bring this minority into your camp, you might win an election. More importantly, you could direct our nation’s attention to a minority group who could elevate the dialogue for everyone because they have the power to unite groups that might otherwise be divided.

To explain, take a look at this picture:

Two beautiful moms of kids with special needs

Two beautiful moms of kids with special needs

I have no idea what their political affiliations are, nor do I know what religion they practice, how they feel about gay marriage, what their opinion on immigration reform might be, how they feel about our nation’s trade policies or what, if any, minority groups they may belong to other than the obvious one of their race. What I do know is that they have formed a bond because of the minority box they both have to check…the minority of people who have a family member with special needs. I’m sure these women have firmly held political beliefs about all the above issues and they care deeply about public policies that could benefit all of us…access to public transportation, access to affordable housing, an overhaul to the Medicaid system and more.  If you can convince them that you care about their children and the challenges they face then I bet you’d win their vote…and mine and the votes of the millions of other Americans.

Decorian and Bill

Bill, on the left, with his friend Decorian

Or take these two young men. They are both 22 and they have been good friends for about six years. And guess what, candidates? Both of them are planning to vote in November. Both of these young men will listen carefully to the advice of their parents before making their decision on who to support. Bill belongs to one minority group, while Decorian belongs to another but their minority affiliations are not mutually exclusive. Decorian may just be a friend to Bill but he has been profoundly changed by their friendship and takes the needs of people with disabilities seriously…and will take that concern with him into the voting booth. And Bill, because he knows what its like to be discriminated against, will carry his concern for Decorian into the voting booth as well.

Ever since I started working with people who have special needs, I’ve wondered why their voice doesn’t matter more and why we don’t hear about them. Where are the lobbyists who advocate for public policies that would benefit the disabled? Why don’t we hear Anderson Cooper or Bill O’Reilly talking about which candidate is ahead with disabled voters the way they tell us who is ahead with the black vote or the hispanic vote? Where are the pundits who ask questions like, “Would you support government programs that offer tax incentives to employers who hire people with intellectual or physical disabilities?” Where are the commentators who hold your feet to the fire on issues like the IDEA Act, the ABLE Act and other federal programs designed to improve the quality of life for people with special needs?

There was one recent politician who had a chance to bring this minority group to the forefront…Sarah Palin, the woman who, to paraphrase Robin Williams, seems to be the secret love child of Ronald Regan and Barbie. She has a child with Down syndrome and could have used her political clout to advocate on behalf of this huge minority. But alas, as most politicians, she just pandered to the same old insiders and operatives…Wall Street, big pharma, insurance companies…we all know the list. Will one of you be the politician who will finally give voice to the 19%…the forgotten minority? If one of you will truly and sincerely address this forgotten minority, you may find that you connect even more significantly with the minority groups you are already wooing.

There are so many vitally important civil rights issues that should matter to all of us but they become contentious when we put hashtags in front of them or associate them with one minority over another. For example, it isn’t just black men who have been brutalized by the police…it happens to people with intellectual and physical disabilities all the time. It isn’t just black and hispanic people who face institutional discrimination because it happens to people with intellectual and physical disabilities all the time.

All of the hot-button issues in this election cycle are issues that matter to the disabled…immigration policies, common core, unemployment, economic issues (by the way, 28% of Americans with a disability live in poverty), marriage equality and all the others.

But here’s the magic difference between the disability minority and the other minorities…once you’re a member of the special needs minority, that membership trumps (no pun intended) any other demographic group a person might identify with. And with the alarming rise in autism spectrum diagnoses, this forgotten minority will continue to grow.

So, which one of you will take on my challenge? Which one of you will care enough about the forgotten 19% to reach out to them and win their vote? If one of you does, then I guess I’ll know who to vote for. If neither of you does, then I will probably stay home on election day.

 

 

 

What I Know About Marriage On The Eve Of My 30th Anniversary

On March 22, 1986, at 2:00 p.m., Alan and I got married.

Our wedding day...so young and in love!

Our wedding day…so young and in love!

We had dated for five years already. We were young, naive and in love. Thirty years later, we are older and wiser but we’re not “in love” anymore. What I feel for him after 30 years has no resemblance to the feelings I had on the day I said, “I do.” At 25, he made my heart flutter…and I thought that’s what love was.

The boy I fell in love with at 21. Isn't he adorable?

The boy I fell in love with at 21. Isn’t he adorable?

At 55, he makes my heart swell…with gratitude and pride…gratitude that we are still together and pride that we have beat the odds (And he does still make my heart flutter…just in a deeper, more profound and more meaningful way!).

Statistics say we shouldn’t still be married. I’m damn proud of us…for course-correcting as we go and for keeping our eye on the prize. There aren’t a lot of folks our age who can say that they’ve only been married once because it’s hard work. There have been many times during our thirty-year marriage when one of us may have wanted to throw in the towel and we’ve both given each other many reasons to do just that. But we didn’t.

So, in a spirit of self-congratulations, I offer you my unsolicited advice on staying married. Wherever you may be on the relationship journey, here’s what I know to be true:

  1. Start by choosing well. We knew enough about each other’s basic value system that we could confidently state we shared same approach to life and wanted the same general outcome. Before Alan, I had never met anyone who looked at life and its purpose through the same filter as me. We shared the same basic philosophy about religion, politics, money and family, although we were too young to have tested any of the theories we held on these topics.
  2. Always respect each other. We may not always agree and we definitely utilize different tactics to get where we want to go but we have a deep and abiding respect for what the other brings to the table.
  3. Understand that if you dissolve a marriage, the issues within that marriage will follow you. The problem with getting divorced is that unless you do a tremendous amount of personal work, the issues that broke up your marriage will continue to haunt you…and they will be magnified by the divisions divorce creates. We figured we might as well stick it out with each other because had we chosen to walk away from our marriage, our personal shortcomings would still be there, staring back at us in the mirror. We both have a lot of personal growth still left to do but we’ve always agreed that it would be easier to do that growth side by side than it would be to do that work apart, with the complications of second marriages, stepchildren, and all that goes along with divorce.

    Our young family in 1992

    Our young family in 1992

  4. Find things to be passionate about together. From the Beatles and the arts to Alabama football, we have always looked for ways to share mutual enthusiasm. There are lots of things we enjoy separately and those things are important to us as individuals but there are some things that we invest our energy into equally. These shared interests give us something to focus on when our separate interests collide.
    He likes to fish. I like to shop.

    He likes to fish. I like to shop.

    And we are lucky that all of our shared passions clicked together when we created Merrimack Hall.

    With a few of our students in 2014

    With a few of our students in 2014

  5. Focus on the legacy that your marriage will leave. I imagine that all people who have long-term marriages have a commitment to leaving some sort of legacy – for their children or their religion or their profession or their community. Alan and I both know that separately, we can leave a mark and we both have. But together, we can make a more powerful statement. I bet every couple who’s been together long enough will say the same thing.

And the most powerful thing I know about being married is this:

7. “We” is more important than “me.” We have approached every challenge and every triumph from the mindset of “we.” There have been dozens of times when what was best for “we” might not have been what was best for either of us personally but we were committed to the notion that when we said, “I Do,” we were forging an alliance that was more important than either of us as individuals.

As I scrolled through photos to use for this post, I was struck by the fact that we all have pictures of ourselves and our lives at our best. I have hundreds of photos of Alan and me at moments of great personal achievement and of great happiness.

Meeting Sir Paul McCartney...definitely a high point

Meeting Sir Paul McCartney…definitely a high point

Receiving the Humanitarian Award in 2014

Receiving the Humanitarian Award in 2014

I wish I had photos that show the turmoil, heartbreak, anger, frustration, chaos and sadness that have marked our 30-year marriage because those would be the photos that really tell the story: when the bank balance is “zero;” when parents age and die; when children veer off course and we fear for their future happiness; when arguments escalate into low-blow name-calling; when business ventures fail; when we embarrass ourselves in public; when we make mistakes that the other predicted but we wouldn’t listen to their advice; when we vehemently disagree on matters of great importance; when we hurt each other…these are the photos I wish I had because they would be the ones that tell the story of staying married for 30 years.

I treasure the moments of heartache and hurt almost as much as I cherish the memories of happiness and joy because it was in those moments that seemed the most hopeless that we chose to remember that WE are more important than ME. And that’s why we’ve managed to stay married for 30 years.

So, Alan, love of my life and best friend forever, congratulations to us. If we’ve made it through everything life has thrown us so far, I’d say we’re golden for the next 30 years. And to borrow Chelsie’s phrase, Alan…you I love.

 

 

I Owe You An Apology

Dear Readers:

I did a crappy thing on Tuesday. I hit “publish” on a blog post about what happened when I went to the polls and didn’t bother to think through all the implications of my words. I was angry and wanted to make a point. In doing so, I undercut my own position.

If you read the post, you will remember that I took a potshot at an ignorant couple who made a disgusting and disparaging remark about a person with special needs – a potshot at what I presumed to be their religion based on their attire. I mocked their appearance when it would have served me much better to let their words stand for themselves.

To me, someone who uses the “R” word is ignorant and heartless. It makes no difference how that person looks or dresses…it only matters that they are a lowlife who disparages someone because of a disability.

Amazing, isn’t it, how the more heated and emotional we become, the more we ratchet up our rhetoric? I complained in my post about people who take to Facebook to insult others because of their politics and then I did the exact same thing. My ego prevented me from using my head. “I’m so clever and funny,” I said to myself as I wrote my description of the couple. Only problem is, I was so caught up with being clever and funny, with presenting my one side of an argument that I neglected to think about friends of mine who might be hurt by my words…which is what I meant to point out to other people. Hypocritical of me to say the least.

I have friends who go to churches that encourage its members to wear certain things or dress in certain ways…Hasidic Jews, Pentecostals and others. As I wrote my vitriol and congratulated myself on my sanctimonious stance, I forgot about them. I have felt guilty and ashamed of myself ever since.

I stand by every word I wrote about people posting their politics on Facebook and every thing I said about voting rights for people with special needs. I even stand by my use of the “F” word and by my assertion that you shouldn’t complain but take action. But how I wish I could take back those few sentences that called attention to the assumptions I made about the religious affiliation of that horrible couple.

I have learned my lesson and to anyone who was offended by my remarks about the couple, I am hope you can accept my apology.

Can we all have a great weekend and take a break from divisive social media posts? I’d love to see lots of grand babies, vacations, uplifting messages and funny stuff in my newsfeed tomorrow morning!

Thanks for reading,

Debra

 

 

I Witnessed Something at the Polls That Made Me Sick

I’m about to do something I’ve never done before on my little blog. I’m going to rant. Big time. About politics and voting. May not even proofread. Will probably use a lot of expletives so now might be the time to click off this page if you don’t want to read a profanity-laced diatribe about what happened when I went to the polls today.

Also, this post is very long.

As I approached the precinct where I vote, I noticed a young adult woman with Down syndrome and her mother entering the building. Standing outside the building was an old man, dressed in denim overalls next to a woman who I presume is a member of some fundamentalist cult because she was wearing a long denim skirt and had that hair…you know the kind. The hairdo that Warren Jeff’s wives wear. As the young woman with Down syndrome walked through the precinct doors, the man said to his wife, “They’re not gonna let that retard vote, are they?”

I was disgusted and sickened. I wanted to slap the man but I was afraid his wife might have a rattlesnake in her purse – you know, for church services later today. Instead, I just said, “Well, they let you vote, you idiot,” and went inside. I didn’t bother with the “R” word issue because you can’t reason with stupid. I’ve been investigating voting rights for people with special needs all afternoon and will share what I’ve learned in a minute…first, I have to rant.

Clearly, this election cycle has us all riled up. I’m sick and tired of scrolling through Facebook and seeing posts about it. Facebook is not a legitimate source of news, people! And no one asked for your opinion to show up in what is supposed to be a social arena. I wouldn’t walk up to you at a party and ask you about your politics or religion and I don’t want you to shove yours in my face when I’m trying to enjoy a nice cup of coffee in the morning. I have “unfollowed” so many people the past few months because frankly, I can’t stomach the ignorance.

It seems to me that the people who have the most vitriolic opinions on social media are usually horribly uninformed, blithely dogmatic and almost always, they are the people who do nothing. Nothing.

Instead of spouting off your philosophy on social media, why don’t you go make a peanut butter sandwich at Manna House or come over to Merrimack Hall and volunteer with people who could use your help? You’re unhappy with politics? Then get involved at the local level or volunteer with your candidate’s campaign. You’re dissatisfied with the school system? Then sign up for the PTA or better yet, ask teachers what you can do to HELP. Shut your mouth unless you’ve taken some action.

I got angry on Sunday when a person who I am real life friends with took to Facebook and publicly shamed people for attending the Trump rally that was held here. Like, she actually said she was ashamed of her friends who went to the rally. I personally know 6 families who took their kids to the Trump rally and to the Rubio rally held the previous day, just so their teens could experience the political process. Four of those families are actually Democrats.

And for the record, I can find something shameful and/or frightening in all of the candidates on both sides of the aisle. Don’t shame people for being part of the political process. Mind your own damn business and get the hell off the internet.

I got even more angry when a friend who lives up north, in a state that is not part of Super Tuesday, shared a post today that said, “To my friends in the South…please enter the voting booth thoughtfully today.” What the fuck is that supposed to mean? I enter the voting booth thoughtfully every time I vote. Was that some sort of veiled insult directed at ignorant Southerners who can’t be trusted to use good sense when we vote?

So, I was already boiling about politics when that pathetic old man made that offensive comment. I came home and got on the phone. I surveyed parents of people with intellectual disabilities. I talked to five different people in my county’s voter registration department. I researched some things online. I even got to speak with my county’s Probate Judge and with an attorney in the office of the Alabama Secretary of State to get clarity on voter rights for people with disabilities.

See what I did? I experienced something upsetting. I researched the situation. I asked questions of officials. And I’m writing my opinion in a blog. I DID something instead of writing a Facebook post. It’s not that hard, people. 

Here’s what I’ve learned so far. A person with special needs can register to vote at the age of 18, just like everyone else. Anyone who receives Medicaid benefits is frequently offered the opportunity to register because the federal government carefully monitors access to voter registration made available to Medicaid recipients. Once someone is a registered voter, they remain a registered voter unless and until they are ruled mentally incompetent by a court of law. My county’s Probate Judge said the best way for people with disabilities – intellectual or physical – to vote is to request an absentee ballot. Anyone with a disability can ask for help at the polls and can receive help from a precinct staffer or from a person of their choosing, as long as that person is not their employer. And there is no physical or intellectual threshold a voter must reach before being granted the right to vote.

If there were an intellectual bottom-line, I’d wager that a huge portion of “normal” people are just too damn stupid to be allowed that privilege. 

In the morning session of our day program for adults with special needs we took an informal poll and found that one-third of them voted. These adults may have a low IQ but they take the responsibility of voting seriously. They discuss current events and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them are better informed on issues than I am.

My bottom line is…I trust people with special needs to make good decisions fifty times more than I trust politicians or idiots on Facebook.

If you are a parent of a child with special needs, you should register your child to vote as soon as they turn 18, if you believe they are competent enough to participate in the process. If you didn’t register them at 18, download the voter registration form and submit it. One of the parents I called said, “I’m not sure it would be fair for my child to vote. She would just vote for whoever I tell her to vote for.” So, let’s think about that a minute.

I have an opinion about who to vote for that is influenced by my husband and his opinion is influenced by mine. My opinions were definitely shaped and informed by my parents just as I have informed the opinions of my children. We do not make voting decisions in a vacuum and I see nothing wrong with a parent assisting and guiding the voting decisions of their adult child with special needs.

The last time I voted, there was an old man who appeared to be 117 and obviously had no idea where he was or what he was doing. His son had no problem ushering him into the polling precinct and filling out the old man’s ballot. No one would ever speak up and say that perhaps Grandpa is too old to vote but they will say that someone with an intellectual disability shouldn’t? I call “bullshit” on that!

Special Needs Votes Matter – let’s start a movement and get them registered!

p.s. Instead of sharing your opinion directly onto social media, you can go to wordpress.com and start a blog like this one. This would prevent the rest of us from being subjected to your vile opinions unless we wanted to know them. Otherwise, I’d love to see pictures of your grand baby or your vacation.

 

Are We Lowering The Barre…Or Raising It?

Project Up dancers performed at the 2013 Dizzy Feet Foundation Gala in LA

Project Up dancers performed at the 2013 Dizzy Feet Foundation Gala in LA

Well, hello again dance lovers!

Last week, I wrote about dance costumes. If you read through the comments on this blog and all over social media, you notice that people raised some big issues – the objectification of women, the exploitation and over-sexualization of children, our body-shaming culture, the prevalence of explicit lyrics in music and much more. Perhaps I should have shared what happened that led to me to write it, since I’ve never written about this topic before. I also want to share with you the one comment out of thousands that…well, it hurt my feelings.

I attended a dance competition in another state because my students with special needs were included in this event, offering the opportunity to spread our message of acceptance and to show hundreds of dancers, their teachers and their families that dance is truly for everyone, regardless of their challenges. This video is an example of what my incredible students and their teenage volunteers can do and there’s another video link at the bottom of this post:

* I’m only speaking about female dancers in this post. This does not mean I am negating or disrespecting the presence of boys in the dance world.*

For about six hours, I watched dancer after dancer perform in her underwear. Maybe its because I was in another state or maybe I just haven’t paid attention to this trend but it was surprising to me how different these costumes were from what I’m used to seeing.

And then it happened…a beautiful girl in the teen category (which means she is not older than 16), a girl who I do not know, from a dance studio I’ve never heard of, did her 11th leg tilt facing the audience and she had – well, let’s just say she had a hugely unfortunate wardrobe malfunction involving the bikini bottom she was wearing – without tights –  resulting in what must have been the most embarrassing moment of that lovely young girl’s life.

There was an audible gasp from the crowd but she maintained her composure and finished her performance, as dancers are taught to do. I was left with a roaring rage directed at the adults in her life who allowed that to happen to her. Adults who selected her costume. Parents who paid for that costume. Adults who did not insure that the costume was properly anchored with butt glue or toupee tape (yes, these items are part of competition dance and apparently many other activities children do these days). And so I wrote my post and hit “publish,” expecting that maybe 5,000 people might read it. Imagine my surprise when half a million of you showed up!

I’ve dug through thousands of comments on social media to see which way the pendulum of public opinion is swinging and according to my scientific poll numbers (obtained by me and my husband adding up likes, positive comments and negative comments with a calculator), 80% of the people who read it agree with me and 18% vehemently disagree with me. The remaining 2% were commenters who admitted they hadn’t read my post but had an opinion anyway. Oh, social media, you can be so entertaining!

Many of those who disagreed with me said they were dance moms. Go figure? The refrain of “It’s only sexual because you’re making it that way…get your mind out of the gutter…quit slut shaming girls” was common amongst my detractors. It’s interesting to me that the original post never used the word “sex.” And I did not shame the dancers…they are children, who have absolutely no choice in the matter. A dancer is going to wear whatever the hell her dance teacher tells her to wear.

And what was the comment that wounded my soul? It said, “This is just another example of the older generation trying to impose their views on the rest of us.”

Older generation? Wait a damn minute, now. When did I become the older generation?

Oh, right…it was when I turned 55 last October and an envelope from AARP showed up in my mailbox, uninvited and unwelcome. I cut up the membership card and threw it in the trash. Whew…that was a close call. I can still pretend I’m not eligible for senior discounts or early bird specials! According to TV commercials, I am actually a candidate for a senior care facility…worry-free living for seniors age 55 and up, they said. I’ll pass on that. I may not understand how the Kardashians became a thing but I’m not going to go quietly into the nursing home just yet. I wrote once before about how I feel about getting older and now someone else feels compelled to remind me that I’m no spring chick.

But you know that old saying, “With age comes wisdom?” It’s true. Or at least it gives you the hindsight and perspective to see things a bit more objectively. Back when I was a teenager, we got a lot of mixed messages from our society – it was the ’70’s, after all. But the mixed messages our girls, especially those involved in competitive dance, are receiving today are more convoluted than any other time in my life.

“You can be anything you want to be, you can break that glass ceiling, you can have it all,” we tell our girls. “You own your own body…you are woman, let me hear you roar.” And then we trot them out to perform, all tarted up and twerking, teaching our girls too early that “sex sells.”

Dance is an activity that should leave a girl feeling empowered, strong and confident. It is an activity where her body is her instrument and as such, should be respected and celebrated. But are we celebrating our young dancers or are we exploiting them? Maybe I’m just too old to understand the answer. But I am still young enough to know that you can be trendy without being tacky and you can give girls confidence in themselves without selling them out.

There has been an evolution in competition dance that has turned it into demanding sport with a higher degree of difficulty than ever, which must be considered when selecting attire for class and performances. If a costume matches age-appropriate music, adds to the story of the dance and can accommodate the dancer’s movements without leaving a tender young person exposed, that’s a win. But if its gratuitous skimpiness, if its just dancing in your underwear, then I think it’s time for a revolution.

Let’s raise the barre for dance, not lower it.

Program Director Melissa, Artistic Director Hayley and dancer Katie with Nigel Lythgoe

Program Director Melissa, Artistic Director Hayley and dancer Katie with Nigel Lythgoe