by Laura Hershey
During Thanksgiving season, it's time to talk about gratitude. This is a tricky subject for people with disabilities. It has its pros and cons. The positive is that there really is so much to be grateful about, and doing so helps us feel good and live well. The negative arises out of a whole history of exclusion and power imbalances. I'll start with the things that make me feel grateful.
I'm grateful for my partner, Robin Stephens. We totally stress each other out at times. Have you ever been in a 20-year relationship? It's not easy. But when it's good, it's really amazing. When I was young and single, my favorite song was Cat Stevens' "Hard-Headed Woman." The music was melodic, the lyrics were beautiful and something told me they were true.
I'm looking for a hard-headed woman,
one who will make me do my best.
When I find my hard-headed woman,
I know the rest of my life will be blessed
I found mine, and yes, the rest of my life has been blessed.
I'm grateful for our daughter, Shannon, who entered our lives and our home only recently, and has transformed my existence in explosive, unexpected, absolutely wonderful ways. As I write this, we are in Southern California on a family vacation. I have watched Shannon's pure delight at dancing in the ocean for the first time ever, collecting seashells, writing in the sand, riding the carousel at Santa Monica Pier, having buffet breakfast with Mickey and Minnie Mouse and Goofy and Stitch, touring Disneyland, and watching fireworks from our hotel balcony. I've always loved traveling; sharing that with Shannon makes it so much more fun.
I'm grateful for my family of origin too, my Mom and Dad and brother John, who raised me well, and continue to be an important part of my life. I'm also grateful for Robin's mom Nancy, who lives in San Diego but stays connected with us through phone calls and visits. She's with us here in our hotel, and in fact, she generously arranged it for us through her timeshare membership.
I'm grateful for the disability community. It's diverse, dynamic, fractious, cantankerous, complacent, focused, distractible, powerful, pressed-down, and always enduring. Its members sustain me in critical ways. Disability rights groups such as ADAPT
and the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition
and Not Dead Yet
defend my rights to public transportation access, entry to local businesses, attendant supports, Medicaid coverage, and LIFE
. Disabled women and queer folks and people of color engage me in understanding intersectionalities among gender, race, and disability oppression, and the need to move beyond rights toward real justice.
I'm grateful specifically for the artistic disability community. It feeds my creative soul, and validates my own efforts at writing poetry and creative nonfiction.
I'm grateful for disability services and support programs that help people live better, integrate, and participate, though they often fall short. I'm grateful for the advocates who try to keep those programs honest, though they often fall short too.
I'm grateful for my body, though it often falls short. It's always had its "issues," to use a euphemism, and as I age these are multiplying. But it's who I am and how I interact with the world and other people and myself. My body hurts me and limits me more than I would like. It also receives and processes art and music and ocean breezes and delicious Vitamixed food. It sends out my voice, my voice of request and direction, my voice of protest, my voice of poetry and prose, my voice of desire. My body is my spirituality, it's all rooted right here in my skin and gut, in my clitoris and tits, in my real, weakly-beating heart and my squishy gray brain.
I'm grateful for my spectacular attendants, who meet my needs skillfully, support my choices, bring extremely useful additional talents to their jobs, such as wheelchair repair and culinary art. Four of them have made this trip possible, successful, and comfortable, despite some difficult disability-related and travel-related conditions. Of course I'm also grateful for the Medicaid program that pays for their services
, without which they wouldn't be here at all, and neither would I. I'm also grateful for the Medicaid "work incentive" rules
which enable me to write and consult, earn money, and still keep these services.
I'm grateful for many other things. I'm grateful for my house in Englewood, Colorado. I'm grateful for my "life support" equipment – my ventilator, sip-and-puff wheelchair, and Dragon NaturallySpeaking
by which I send this blog post out into the world. I'm grateful for the other writers with whom I've developed exchange-and-critique arrangements, like Michele and Kathy, and also the Lambda Lovelies.
So now for the dark side of gratitude. All too often, people with disabilities are pressured to feel gratitude for things that are their basic human rights – subsidized housing, support services, inclusion in the community, basic acceptance and respect. Some people think that disability is a drain on the economy, and an imposition on others. They don't want to be reminded of the prevalence and inevitability of disability in any society, in any person's experience or family. In response to this deep discomfort, they try to impose conditions on anything "given" to people with disabilities – conditions like passiveness, submissiveness, limited demands, and constant thank yous.
We have to demand the things that are essential to our lives, equality, and quality of life. We must refuse to feel gratitude for these, except the normal level of gratitude that anyone might feel for living in a time and place that still supports human life. We can't succumb to feelings like embarrassment or shame regarding our needs, even if those needs are more extensive than the average person's needs. That will only reinforce and perpetuate our inequality, and the pulling away of vital state- and federally-funded support services.
Gratitude is natural and healthy, but should never be obligatory. Identifying and sharing our real sources of gratitude is a good counter-balance to the tendency for self-destructive gratitude.
© 2010 by Laura Hershey