Whose disability is it, anyway?

Last year, my typically developing seven-year-old daughter had about a 1-minute homework attention span and over 30 minutes of homework daily. You do the math.

I tried everything — pleading, yelling, coaxing, creating a consistent routine, using positive behavior reinforcements and a visual timer — to no avail. Staying focused without having someone physically present to re-direct her attention to the work was simply above her ability. The year started and ended with a lot of teeth gnashing from both of us. The question of ADD hung in the air.

This year’s homework now lasts 10 minutes or less. Problem solved, more or less. No more anger and frustration. ADD is still a question mark, but our lives are more peaceful.

I also have a son who has a number of medical, developmental and behavioral special needs, much more complex than, but including, difficulty paying attention. Though it’s not a perfect analogy, it’s hard not to wonder if something similar could happen to him if the world was different.

The more time I spend “fixing” my son’s various medical etiologies, behaviors, and inabilities so that he can productively participate in society, the more I wonder: Are his disabilities themselves really a problem, or is it society who has a disability?

If his school cannot provide an adequate and appropriate education for him — is that his disability or theirs?

If our town’s recreation department cannot come up with a single activity that he could do with other typically developing peers — is that his disability or theirs?

If my community cannot see his value and seek out ways to include him in their restaurants, plays, activities and events — is that his disability or theirs?

If it does not occur to local business owners that they could one day hire him — is that his disability or theirs?

If my country cannot see the justice in creating a safe and welcoming society for him (and everyone like him) that gives him the supports he needs until all of these disabilities are overcome — is that his disability or theirs?

I’m not proposing that we lower the bar for him. But what if we could raise it just a little for everybody else?

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Durga Tool #5: Asking Stupid Questions, aka Beginner’s Mind

Here’s another in my toolbox series of techniques that inspire me to live with joy, compassion and courage, as inspired by the Hindu goddess Durga  — my nominee for patron saint of special needs parents.

When it comes to raising kids with special needs, there are a lot of gatekeepers who get to be on our “team”– insurance company reps, city officials, special ed departments, healthcare providers, state agency eligibility screeners.

Cultivating trusting relationships with these folks is essential to me; not just because I believe in the old adage about catching more flies with sugar than with vinegar, but because treating people with respect and compassion and humanity is important to my integrity. Confrontation is so draining. Besides, it’s a great opportunity to pay off some old bad karma!

Though from time to time an impasse occurs and it is tempting to lose my temper in anger or fear. Often what’s going through my mind is those situations are questions like: “How can they expect my child to make progress with so little?” or “How dare they tell me what’s best for my child?” or even “This person seems to like my child a lot and they have a lot of expertise, but why doesn’t what they’re proposing feel right to me?”

Blurting out these questions, especially in a tone of mistrust, anger or rage can damage these relationships. In my experience, even calm-headed, straight-out debating — trying to convince the person whose opinion differs from mine why their position is “wrong” — doesn’t often work either. They often shut down, get defensive, dig their heels in deeper. It’s useful in these situations to have a go-to strategy that keeps the conversation productive.

In their popular and helpful book Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy – The Special Education Survival Guide, authors and advocates Pam and Pete Wright propose what they call “The Columbo Strategy”:

“Tell the School Staff that you are confused. You want to ask a stupid question.”

Remember Columbo? With his trademark cigar and his hand to his forehead, he’d give his suspects plenty of rope with which to hang themselves in the form of one “stupid question” (usually when his hand was on the door and he was about to leave). Always friendly, never confrontational, he’d play the seeming fool before tripping them up in their own lies.

Employing the Columbo Strategy, you can sometimes bring the team around without having a head-on confrontation. Telling educators and other helpful people that you have a stupid question usually brings out their desire to help and mentor. I must admit I’ve used this technique successfully in meetings to illicit an increase in resources without having to ask for it directly.

The problem for me with this technique is that it feels duplicitous and can make people feel “handled.” The key is to keep a curious, neutral tone and to actively listen to their answer.

In Zen Buddhism, this state of openness and curiosity is referred to as Beginner’s Mind. In this space, one has no preconceived answers, only an eagerness to learn. While this might seem like a powerless posture to assume in a negotiation for something as important as your own child’s needs, it can be exactly the opposite. It doesn’t create defensiveness in others because it is at its heart an open, inclusive, team-oriented state.

Beginner’s Mind can reveal a lot of illogical holes in systems. Asking “why?” over and over again, when it leads to responses like “Because that’s the way we always do it,” or “Because we don’t have a budget to do any more,” is an extremely effective tool, especially when you simply let such answers hang in the air.

There are no guarantees of course. Each situation calls for its own approach, but having a sincere beginner’s mind is never a bad starting place, in my experience.

Playing Whac-a-Mole

The daily grind of life as a special needs parent often feels like a game of Whac-a-Mole. Have you played that arcade game? Equipped with one huge padded hammer, the player attempts to hit small mechanical moles that pop out of their holes. Only one mole can be up at a time, but as soon as you hit one down, another pops up. The faster you hit them, the more there are to hit. Hit the most moles in the allotted time, and you are the winner. Free stuffed tiger to the lady in blue!

For those of you who’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about. Just as we finish addressing one issue, another comes up. Some neurology crisis arises…whack!…then it’s time for IEP negotiations…whack!…cajole our way to a new bus driver…whack!…and it’s time for another surgery…whack!…and the game goes on and on and on.

This past week we saw a new specialist in a branch of medicine we haven’t encountered before. It’s been on my to-do list but we just had so many other pressing challenges to deal with — failure to thrive, regression at school and the death of my dad to name but three. Not trying to sound like a Drama Mama, but I’m just sayin’: this particular specialist didn’t even make it out of our doctor’s recommendations and onto our calendar for five years.

So this week, as we waited in the exam room for the doc to arrive while my son ripped his collection of outdated periodicals to shreds, I reflected on how I’m just whacking away…but kind of grateful that our situation has changed enough that I could even contemplate sitting in this particular office at all.  Another tiny wave of gratitude arose when it hit me that some things can wait. Everyone isn’t so lucky. What happens when all the moles pop up at the same time? One only has one mallet.

Of course, seeing the specialist this week (whack!) led to another referral and another specialist. More whacks to come. But I’m aiming to win that giant panda hanging up at the rafters and I can do this for a long time.

A new perspective on sinking and swimming

Other people’s dreams can be so tedious, I know, but it can’t be helped.

I’m at a support group with other parents of special needs kids; I can’t see the other participants (am invisible to them, too) because the room is all obstructed views. I ask if we can re-arrange the seats, but am told that I don’t need to be there, this meeting isn’t about me, I seem to be doing fine and this is a support group for people with urgent issues, but why do I ask, they wonder, do I need to talk? I burst out crying, “I ALWAYS need to talk,” and I’m whisked away to another part of the room before I infect the others with my hysteria.

I am led to a table surrounded by a Greek chorus of special needs parents who in real life know my heart the best, and I plead “When will I need to stop talking about this?”, embarrassed, ashamed that I’m not cool about all this, that my struggle means that I don’t love my son, that I’m not a good mother. “I mean, he’s healthy, he’s not in pain, he’s not sick, he’s loving, he’s great. So why do I still feel like I need to talk about this?” They absorb my words impassively. Without pause my words continue to flood out, “Sometimes I think about what it would be like if I could take all of his challenges away,” and they shake their heads vigorously, moaning, “No, no, we must never do that, it can’t be done,” but I can’t help it, the words are already out, Pandora’s box has been opened, and the only way to describe what that would be like is to show them, and I raise my face upward and gasp for breath, arms floating as if I am breaking the surface after being underwater much too long, and they all raise their faces too, and they all inhale deeply with me.

“But that’s not the right metaphor,” I said, “because that would mean that now, I am drowning.”

And I wake up gasping for breath.

———–

Last weekend I went on a retreat called “Living Beautifully with Complexity and Change.” Our theme, we were told, would be this prophesy, taken from Perseverance by one of our teachers, Margaret Wheatley.

From the Elders of the Hopi Nation
Oraibi, Arizona  June 8, 2000
 
To my fellow swimmers:
 
Here is a river flowing now very fast.
It is so great and swift that there are those
who will be afraid, who will try
to hold on to the shore.
They are being torn apart and
will suffer greatly.
 
Know that the river has its destination.
The elders say we must let go of the shore.
Push off into the middle of the river,
and keep our heads above water.
 
And I say see who is there with you
and celebrate.
At this time in history,
we are to take nothing personally,
least of all ourselves,
for the moment we do,
our spiritual growth and journey come to a halt.
 
The time of the lone wolf is over.
Gather yourselves.
Banish the word struggle from your attitude
and vocabulary.
 
All that we do now must be done
in a sacred manner and in celebration.
For we are the ones we have been waiting for.
 
————

In my dream, I was right. Drowning wasn’t exactly the right metaphor. I wasn’t drowning, but being torn apart from clinging to the shore. And the clinging, I see now, doesn’t come from me wanting him to be anyone other than exactly who he is, but from wanting the rest of the world to be a place where he — where all of us — is safe, welcome, valued. I know that to help the world become this place, I must let go, surrender to the river and its destination, and sometimes I can. There are no guarantees that the middle of the river is any safer, any less treacherous, but it feels like the right thing to do. Every moment becomes the chance to do it again, to re-commit to letting go and being in the middle, where all the important work gets done.

Here I float, in the middle of the river, in sacredness and celebration, banishing the word struggle from my attitude and vocabulary. Will you join me here? When I forget, will you remind me to let go?