“A” is for Advocacy

I’m not a parent, but the internet has exposed me to the struggles, joys, and everyday dilemmas of parenting in this ever-connected, ever-judgmental world. I read discussions about how to teach kids to interact more gracefully on the playground; how to remove bread from a hot toaster; how to play traditionally-inaccessible board games; how to shave sensitive areas of the developing body. Each time I see one of these, my heart soars. My parents had to raise me with sporadic, impersonal support, while parents who knew nothing of disability looked on with varying degrees of disapproval. They made it work, but there are many gaps in my basic skillset that might have been filled by an online community of disabled people who were willing to share their wisdom. If Disability Wisdom or VI Talk had been around when I was growing up, I might not be so wary of toasters.

The one skill that seems underrated, particularly in rural settings, is advocacy. Several of my teachers, visual consultants, and special education coordinators were adamant that I master an array of miscellaneous skills, like cutting paper with scissors, drawing the human form (with what little vision I had), and writing a legible signature. My childhood involved hours spent cutting a piece of blank paper into a series of meaningless rectangles that were destined for the recycle bin. I practiced my signature each day in a special book, trying vainly to copy the raised signature on the front cover, and wondering why sighted people were allowed to have illegible scrawls while I had to achieve perfection. (These days, my signature is defiantly unreadable.) I connected dots on graph paper. I completed strange worksheets with tactile circles, using a different colour for each one. These exercises ensured that I’d always be comfortable with scissors, and have a rudimentary idea of how to draw a human face, but they didn’t teach me how to stand up for myself, or ask for accommodations, or interpret my rights as a disabled person. Every now and then, someone would mention that I must always be my own advocate, but the concept was never expanded upon, and far more attention was paid to how I held a pencil—a pencil I’d seldom use, since I couldn’t handwrite—than how well I understood what being a disabled adult might be like.

Steeped as I was in traditional Catholic culture, I was an obedient student rather than a respectful one. Fear and anxiety were far more influential than respect or interest, and while I enjoyed school and hungered for knowledge, my primary and secondary education rarely encouraged me to grow into anything more than an unquestioning rule-follower. I’d occasionally be chastised for seeming too passive, or criticized for failing to take initiative, but years of conditioning kept me from voicing disagreement or making my own decisions in almost all cases. After all, what did I know that grownups did not? Who was I to request accommodations that made sense to me when someone who earned a lot of money and used plenty of high-level language felt differently? How could I ever provide insight about my own learning style when someone with decades of experience knew best? I carried on in this way for far too long, wanting to take the wheel but convinced I’d cause a wreck. Systematic rejection of my ideas and insights bolstered the illusion. By the time I left grade school to start my postsecondary adventure, I had very little idea that my rights would constantly be challenged, or that I had disability-specific rights at all.

In university, I soon figured out that even though I had no foundation to build on, I’d have to learn how to be my own advocate, and learn it quickly. My life and education were in my own hands, and those hands were more capable than many had let me believe. With ample coaching and encouragement from newly-discovered disabled friends, I engaged in the controversial art of speaking up. I practised saying “no,” or “yes, but not that way,” or “please Don’t grab me,” or “I want to try this instead.” When roadblocks were put in my path, I didn’t docilely accept them as immovable parts of my reality. Sometimes, I was even a little bit firm. I worked to let go of “I’m sorry, that’s probably silly” and “What do I know?” In place of those familiar crutches, I paid attention to what worked for me, and asked for it. When charm failed, which wasn’t often, I used blunt logic, and usually won. It was a novel and exhilarating way to live, though it came at a cost. Since acquiring advocacy skills, my life has never been as calm and peaceful as it once was. Taking control of your own life is exhausting business.

Living in a more tolerant and accessible world doesn’t mean everyone can sit back, relax, and forget how to take ownership of their lives. If anything, widespread complacency about our supposedly-civilized society means parents need to be even more diligent about instilling advocacy skills in all children, not just disabled ones, early and often. I’m not suggesting that children should be taught to despise authority or behave disruptively for the sake of it, but they should be as prepared as possible for the ignorance, bigotry, and exclusion they will inevitably face. Adults are not always right, and it’s neither healthy nor safe to teach kids otherwise.

Whether you’re a parent of a disabled child or a newly-disabled adult, don’t ignore the limitations of a life without solid advocacy—a life far more limiting than a disability could ever be. Be mindful that third-party advocacy will never match the advocacy you can do for yourself. Value the insight and experiences of experts, but be open to customized solutions. Seek advice from the disability community, but remember that conventional wisdom is not without merit. Recognize that not every problem is a disability problem; some of them are just ordinary problems that can be solved in ordinary ways. Emphasize the powers of courtesy and respect, but never underestimate well-harnessed anger. Acknowledge social hierarchy, but be aware that hierarchy is commonly abused.

Parents may resist teaching advocacy skills, and I have the greatest sympathy with them. Advocacy is frightening, and frequently disappointing. It is delicate, thankless, much-maligned work, especially when it’s done by young people. It will not always produce the hoped-for results, and it’s rarely much fun. Understand that advocacy is tough to cultivate, and likely to inspire nasty pushback from people your child loves and trusts. Be ready to deal with the possibility that your child’s advocacy will sometimes be directed at you, and that you won’t like how it feels. Know that you will need to respect their advocacy, even if it hurts or upsets you. Accept that you are not exempt. Shudder at these harsh truths, and teach it anyway.

Advocacy skills have guaranteed that my education was useful and comprehensive. They prevented me from being barred from services I required. They help me be productive and successful. Advocacy is the cornerstone of every fruitful thing I have ever done for my schooling, my career, and my relationships. It keeps me on my feet when the wind is doing its best to knock me over, even and especially when that wind is coming from an unexpected direction.

Before you worry too much about signatures and scissors and the exact method of removing bread from a toaster, remember that A is for advocacy. Start there, and everything else should follow.

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Counting My Spoons: A Life Lived in Pain

It’s easy to be philosophical about blindness. I don’t have to stretch much to say it’s opened doors I never would have discovered if I were sighted. Blindness has compelled me to meet interesting people, acquire specialized skills, and develop a readily adaptable spirit. It’s not always fun—not even mostly—but it’s not without its upsides.

I am not philosophical about the chronic pain I’ve lived with for almost ten years. A decade of tension pain and migraines has weathered and exhausted me in ways I’m still attempting to put into words. If blindness is like the common cold, interfering with everyday life but easy enough to accommodate, chronic pain is like the flu. Just when you think you’re finally feeling strong enough to conquer your to-do list, or socialize with friends, or get some writing done, it sweeps over you, leaving you in a nauseated heap. At that point, there’s nothing for it but to slink off to bed, cancelling plans and sowing disappointment as you go.

Often enough, I can hack it. How else would I manage to hold down a job and maintain some semblance of a life? On most days, I grit my teeth, slather on the peppermint oil, and plaster on my smile. I carry tissues for when my eyes water with the pain, and can occasionally be found slumped over my desk with my head in my hands, but I can usually be depended upon to seem healthy and energetic.

Usually.

If you’ve ever spent any length of time with me in person, there’s an excellent chance I was fighting pain. If you’ve tried to arrange a phone call or coffee date with me, I’ve probably pulled out at the very last minute. If you’ve worked with me, you’ve seen me press my fingers into my forehead when I think you’re not looking. If you ask, I’ll say I’m fine. Most of you know I’m full of it, but it would be far too awkward to pursue the matter.

Loved ones have received text messages like “I’m not in pain today!” People who know me well have seen me cry, throw up, or lash out when my headaches are stronger than my resolve to seem normal. Managers have heard a dozen variations of “I need to leave early,” or “I need to sit quietly in this corner until this backs off.” On the very worst days, they get “I’m sorry. I tried, but I can’t come in today.” Housemates and partners have sent me back to bed after I’ve insisted I’ll be okay. Each time feels like a battle I’ve lost.

My fiancé deals with the brunt of it. No part of our relationship is untouched by the unpredictable whims of a body in pain. Dates are postponed, and postponed again, and eventually forgotten altogether. Dinners are skipped because my migraine has sapped me of my hunger. Harsh words escape because while my control is exceptional, it is not perfect, and pain makes me feel as defensive as a wounded animal. Domestic duties are shirked, and I watch guiltily from bed as he sorts laundry I am too sore to hang because I can’t reach above my own head. Many a time, he has cooked, cleaned, and run errands while I cuddle my heat wrap and take enough Excedrin to make an elephant tremble. I interrupt intimate moments, rolling away to hide angry tears; I am too tired, too sore, too weak to participate. Through it all, he is incredibly understanding, but the inequality is its own kind of pain.

And then there are the good days: days when I’m thrumming with energy, ready for anything. During these rare days, sandwiched between “okay” and “terrible,” I sing, clean, write, and tackle all the tasks I’ve left undone. I squeeze every moment of life I can into these precious pain-free days, balancing my enjoyment of the freedom with the knowledge that it never, ever lasts. My good days fool everyone into believing I’m all right. Unlike me, they still have faith that it’ll stay that way.

The crash, after a string of good days, is the worst.

I count my spoons with care, trying to account for the unpredictable. Do I spend this “good day” doing housework or writing? If I only have the energy for one social gathering, but I’ve booked two, which should I cancel? Which friend would I rather upset? Whose disappointment is easier to bear? Which task can I afford to push back? Since work is normally my top priority, and getting through it each day is costly, what should I do with the few hours before bed?

Know this, dear reader: my heart is so much bigger than my energy. My desire to connect with you, return your email, meet you for lunch, text you when you’re lonely, help with your creative project, is infinite. My ability to fulfill that desire is decidedly finite. If I’ve missed your call, cancelled our plans, failed to meet your deadline, ruined your good time with my exhaustion—I am truly sorry. I want to do better. If I had enough spoons to make everyone happy, I’d use them, because all my friends and all my family members and all others who depend on me are worthy.

So I ask everyone I’ve hurt, everyone I’ve disappointed, everyone I’ve let down: forgive me. I am getting better at this pain thing, but I am still learning. I don’t always distribute my spoons wisely. I overestimate my strength and overbook myself. I make promises I fully intend to keep, and need more time than I thought because work and basic housekeeping and mere survival take precedence. On good days, I sometimes forget to be careful, and pay for it on bad days. And, readers, I know you’ve paid for it, too.

No, I’m not philosophical about pain. I can never pretend it opens doors, or enhances empathy, or makes my world a richer place. Mostly, it just makes every little thing I do harder and more complicated. It turns an organized, driven person into an unwilling canceller of plans. I’m nothing if not adaptable, though—thanks blindness—and I’m slowly learning to count those spoons. I’m learning strategies to keep the pain from taking over my life. I’m becoming more accurate in measuring my energy levels and prioritizing what really matters.

In the meantime, I ask for patience, not only for myself, but for everyone you know who lives a life in pain. No, we’re not always fine, and no, we can’t always tackle what needs tackling.

But we love you. We’re trying. We’re playing the worst of all juggling games, and we are so, so tired.

But by God, we’re trying.