Do All Lives Really Matter?

October 9, 2016

My daughter, Allison, is autistic. I had been aware from the time she was about three weeks old that there was something radically different about her.  Until we got the diagnosis, I tried to reassure myself that she was just an extremely demanding and difficult child, but when she was about three, we learned that she had some developmental delays. Then came the official diagnosis when she was 5. We were devastated.

But then we regrouped, and we resolved that regardless of the label, we would do everything we could to maximize her potential.  She spent most of her pre-school years attending speech and occupational therapy twice a week, saw a behavioral counselor once a week, attended both a special-needs preschool and a traditional preschool, and participated in a therapeutic riding program.  When she was ready for kindergarten, the Catholic school our older daughter attended wouldn’t admit her because they didn’t want any “retards” (you read that right), and our public school was not willing to provide any specialized services for her save a half-hour each week of occupational therapy.

So we bit the bullet an enrolled her in a private school for children with learning disabilities.  We couldn’t afford it, and we took on staggering debt to keep her there for 8 years.  When she aged out of the school, we sent her to a Christian academy that had a special program for children with learning disabilities.  The teachers, staff, kids, and parents were some of the kindest, most compassionate people I have ever met, but the school was not able to provide the level of support Allison needed, so we sent her to our public middle school, and then high school, where she received outstanding, focused attention by determined and devoted personnel.

Through those years, Allison continued with therapy and attended a special after-school program for kids with disabilities at a local gymnastics center.  She was made to feel welcome at a performing arts workshop and summer camp that she attended for many years.  She kept up with her riding and participated in social, community, service, and advocacy activities with a group of other young adults with disabilities.  Allison graduated from high school, completed a year-long internship in a job skills program for young adults with disabilities, and then realized her dream of attending a vocational training school in West Virginia for people interested in working in the equine industry.  After receiving her trainer’s certification, Allison returned home to continue her internship at the barn where she rides.  It is her goal to obtain a paid position as the assistant to the therapeutic riding instructor and, perhaps someday, to become a therapeutic riding instructor herself.

Since Allison’s birth, years, a huge percentage of our family’s life has been focused on helping her set and work towards goals.  It has not been easy, or cheap.  We have attended many, many doctor’s appointments, therapist appointments, IEP meetings, and meetings with vocational resource personnel to make sure Allison is getting what she needs.  We have been through numerous medication trials and too many medical interventions to count.  We have hired tutors and coaches for Allison to work with her on a one-on-one level to supplement her educational, vocational and therapeutic services.  Over the years, I have shed many, many tears over Allison – for what I can’t fix, what I can’t make better; the comments I’ve heard made about her, the looks I’ve seen directed at her; the low expectations of those who think she’s unemployable, the refusal of her instructors at “pony college” in West Virginia to acknowledge her limitations or go the extra mile to help her keep up.

I haven’t been a perfect mother, or, in some instances, even a very good one.  What we have always striven to do, however, is to instill in Allison the conviction that she is not defined or limited by her diagnosis, that she should set goals without regard to her disabilities, and that while she may have to work harder to achieve less than her chronological peers, there is no reason that she should not live a fulfilling, meaningful, and independent life.

Although Allison has made huge strides towards her career goals, social interactions remain painfully difficult for her. She has trouble making and keeping eye contact or carrying on a conversation that strays too far from one of the few topics about which she feels confident in expressing her thoughts (Harry Potter and horses figure largely in her repertoire).  She has some unusual tics, and her verbal expression and physical carriage are indicative that she is not neuro-typical. When our family considers how much progress she has made, how many obstacles she has overcome, however, we burst with pride for her bravery and determination, and we believe that there is still much she has left to show us about what she can accomplish despite such a terrifying diagnosis. We also feel enormously grateful that the combination of a sheltering childhood and a team of teachers, therapists, doctors, and other helpers who have given their heart and soul for her have largely protected her from the kind of teasing she might have experienced had she been born 30 years earlier. In our experience, so many families have been confronted with the challenge of a child with special needs that they have raised siblings who are compassionate and inclusive; as well, the increased sensitivity and awareness of autistic spectrum disorders in the last ten years has meant that Allison has not had to face the cruelty of and ignorance of those who think it’s okay to mock a disabled person, so much so that I naively thought that such people no longer existed.

Which is why, when I saw Donald Trump mimicking his version of Serge Kovaleski, a reporter who is disabled, I was—first and foremost—just plain shocked.  Trump’s gesticulations, intended to approximate the manner in which Kovaleski’s arthrogryposis manifests itself, were absolutely astonishing to me.  If not because he was a sensitive and decent human being, then at least for the sake of his image, did Trump not appreciate the message he was sending? And when it was pointed out to him that this behavior was not acceptable, did that reporter get an apology?

No, he didn’t. And neither did the Muslim, Jewish, Mexican/Latino, Black, or LGBTQ communities, and neither did women.  The hateful words we heard issue from Donald Trump’s lips during the campaign and now see spilling out of the mouths of some of his supporters, emboldened by those words in the aftermath of the election, have apparently ceased to be shocking.  It’s a new normal, and not a good one.

I didn’t vote for Donald Trump for a lot of reasons.  For one, I questioned his lack of relevant experience.  I found his ceaseless self-aggrandizement and brand promotion tasteless.  I questioned whether he understood, or cared to understand, the complexities of the job for which he was interviewing.  I had doubts about his attention span and ability to remain committed to and interested in the role of commander in chief – it’s a thankless job subject to stringent, intensive scrutiny.  There were a lot of reasons why I pushed the button for another candidate, but the main reason – the surpassing, deal-breaker, no-way-in-hell-would-I-ever-vote-for-him reason came down to this:  He thinks my daughter is sub-human.  Someone to be mocked for things she has no control over.  A freak.

There are many out there who have excused Donald Trump’s many caustic, horrible remarks – they say that those remarks don’t represent who he really is.  They say that those who belong to the groups he offended should grow up, toughen up, lighten up, and move on.  They say that they may not like some of Trump’s comments, but that he represented the better alternative by virtue of his economic, immigration, and foreign policy positions.  They say there are able to overlook those statements and see all of the good things Donald Trump wants to do for our country.  That’s mighty big of those people, most of whom don’t belong to any of the groups about which he’s made such hurtful and searing statements.

There are many ways in which a person reveals his or her character to the world.  One of them is by the things they are willing to overlook in service of their own self-interest.  To me, a vote for Donald Trump spoke volumes about how that person felt about people with disabilities in general, and my daughter, in particular.  It was beyond incomprehensible to me that otherwise good and thoughtful people (of the 61 million who voted for him, there must be at least a few) could choose for president a man who did not feel deeply, appropriately ashamed, for stooping to such depths as to make fun of a person with disabilities.  What Donald Trump’s election communicates to me is that there are 61 million people in this country to whom my daughter’s dignity means nothing.

I’m certain that most of the people who voted for Donald Trump never stopped to think about how his words affected so many of our country’s citizens, because a lot of them probably don’t know many Muslims, or Latinos, or Jews, or LGBTQs, or disabled people, or if they do, then not very well.  I’m pretty sure that when people cast their ballots for The Donald, they didn’t stop and think about how a Trump presidency would impact the lives of people with disabilities, including Allison – I guess I shouldn’t expect them to, nor would I imagine that they ever considered how that vote might be perceived by Allison, and others in the disabled community, but I know, because she’s told me. It goes something like this: “I guess people like me don’t matter.”

There’s a long list of things Donald Trump needs to do as president – and assuring the disabled that their issues are important is probably well near the bottom of his list, but it shouldn’t be. As so many who supported him are fond of saying, “All lives matter.” To all of those people, I say, let it be so.



Why I’m Ambivalent About Hillary has Nothing to Do with Hillary

October 7, 2016

As the presidential election nears, the attacks on both candidates have grown more fierce and mean-spirited. I’ve read with dismay the many posts decrying the lack of fitness on both sides–not only because both candidates seem to fall far short of what we all probably would have hoped for, but also because I wonder how we are ever going to move past the vitriol and hatred once one of them is elected our president and commander in chief.

What probably surprises me the most about this election isn’t the unprecedented level of bizarre behavior and personal attacks, but, rather, the extent to which some women hate–and I mean, DESPISE–Hillary Clinton. People who I know to have made it a career of criticizing President Obama now post statements he made in 2008, when he was running against her for the Democratic nomination, in which he questioned whether she was the right person for the job–as though what he had to say then is now, suddenly worth listening to. And while I can appreciate that many dislike and disagree with her ideals, why is it that they abhor her?

I asked myself this question because I’ll be honest–I’ve never been a huge Hillary fan. I recall her sitting next to her husband during an interview on “60 Minutes” amidst his first presidential campaign saying, “I’m not one of those little women staying home baking cookies,” and there was a certain level of condescension in her tone I didn’t like.

Later, I wondered where she got off running for the senate when she’d never even held elected office before…were we supposed to vote for her simply because her husband had been president? Because that’s all I really knew about Hillary Clinton, other than she’d gone to a Seven Sisters college (like me), and was a lawyer (also like me).

You would think that a raving liberal feminist like me would have jumped on the Hillary Bandwagon a long time ago, and yet, she just rubbed me (and, apparently, a lot of women) the wrong way. Why? Why indeed.

Obviously, the lack of transparency is troubling, and it needlessly raises questions that distract from more important and relevant issues of policy and qualifications. Then, too, there have just been so many dumb mistakes that, while not illegal, have unnecessarily caused people to draw conclusions that probably aren’t accurate but are nonetheless understandable.

And that troubles me, because Hillary has squandered, to some extent, the promise of her tremendous intelligence, legendarily exhaustive preparation, and enormous passion to serve. But that’s not what bothered me the most.

I am embarrassed to admit this, but the thing I just couldn’t get past was that Hillary was so damned ambitious–my gosh, she really thought she could be president!–and she never, ever apologized for it. I realized that I hated Hillary for the same reason a lot of people love her opponent: Because hating what she represented made me feel better about all the things I’d never accomplished.

Hillary Clinton is not a perfect woman. She’s not the person I would have picked to be the first woman nominated by a major political party to run for the highest office in the land. I guess I’d like that person to be a bit more demure and a bit less obvious about just how very much she wants to be our next president. Which it would never have occurred to me to say about any other person who has ever had a serious shot at the presidency in the last 240 years. Because men are suppose to be bold and brash and possessed of the single-minded determination and self-confidence that it takes to be a great leader. Women, not so much.

And so, the card carrying raving liberal feminist had to rethink a few things, like maybe it’s okay to be ambitious, and it’s okay to be confident, and you shouldn’t have to apologize for that, especially to other women.

I don’t purport to speak for any other woman out there, but I bet I’m not alone in my reasons for wishing that Hillary didn’t seem quite so much like a pushy broad fighting her way to the top. But you know, that’s often the way that a lot of “firsts” get there…after all, it’s not like the rich and powerful white guys just said to them, “hey, come on in and be the only non-white/male/ straight/Christian in our little club here…welcome!” Sometimes you have to be a little pushy so that those who follow you, don’t.

Dislike her for her politics, or because you think she lacks integrity and judgment (which would put her squarely on par with her opponent), but if you’re going to hate her, just be sure it’s for the right reason.

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Up By Your Bootstraps

September 29, 2016

There’s a video making the rounds on Facebook…I’ve seen it a number of times…it’s supposedly “hilarious.” The gist is that Smart, Liberal Democratic college student berates her hardworking, wise old dad because he’s voting for the Republican Party presidential candidate, and she doesn’t agree with his economic policies.

Now, you’re going to have to suspend credulity at this point that Dem Daughter’s biggest concern about the other candidate is his economic policy (what with the fact that, in the 16 months since he announced his candidacy, he hasn’t actually articulated one), as opposed to all that niggling evidence that he’s a bigoted, ignorant, bloviating sexual predator, but let’s go with it and see if there’s something to be learned here (spoiler alert…no).

Dad chuckles at his simple-minded progeny and begins to mansplain to her why he’s supporting a presidential candidate who wasn’t aware that Russia had invaded the Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, or that the Central Park Five were exonerated and released from prison based on DNA evidence years ago (he still thinks they should be executed).

So he reminds his daughter, the hard-working Liberal Democrat (Wait! Is there such a thing?!?), that because she takes tough classes and studies all the time and never does anything fun, she has earned a perfect 4.0, whereas her Slacker Girl roommate who never goes to class, parties all the time, and only takes easy courses, has, not surprisingly, ended up with staggeringly bad grades.

Dad then jokes that Dem Daughter should put her economic policy where her mouth is by instructing the Dean to give Slacker Girl some of her hard-earned GPA so that Slacker Girl will not have to face the consequences of her poor choices. And of course Dem Daughter sees the error of her ways and decides that she, too, will vote for her dad’s guy, even though he’s creepy and looks like a giant circus peanut.

What troubles me about the message here is the assumption that those who would benefit from the “wealth redistribution” touted by Dem Daughter have precisely the same opportunities as those in the top 1%. This is a false equivalency, as many who are at the lowest level of the economic spectrum aren’t necessarily there because they are lazy or make self-indulgent, poor choices.

In many cases, familial support, access to good education and healthcare, or quality employment simply don’t exist. Those of us who were blessed with loving parents, intact families, top-notch schools, regular medical and dental care and good nutrition, don’t always understand that what we take for granted as the norm is only a dream for many, many people in this country.

This video also wrongly assumes that those who are wealthy got that way because they worked hard, which is also not necessarily the case. Certainly, the Bill Gates of the world can point to years of backbreaking hard work, but a great deal of the 1% inherited their wealth and have never worked a day in their life. Still others have used family wealth and connections to launch (or bail out) businesses that might otherwise have failed.

Hard work is certainly a virtue, and in many cases is indeed a path to success and prosperity, but not always. It bears noting, moreover, that those who have worked the hardest for their wealth are often the first to want to give it away for the greater good, while others establish “charitable foundations” to which they themselves do not contribute and which they utilize to commission large portraits of themselves or to settle lawsuits.

Finally, this video unfairly and inaccurately attempts to characterize the ideas of those like Bernie Sanders, who has never suggested that the rich should simply be stripped of their wealth and have it handed over to all those lazy poor people so they can blow it by making the same poor choices that led to their poverty in the first place.

At their most basic, policies designed to combat income inequality seek to implement a minimum wage that can actually provide the fundamental basics of food, clothing and shelter, while eliminating income tax loopholes that allow the top 1% to avoid paying their fair share. No one is suggesting that all those on Wall Street who played Russian Roulette with mortgage-backed securities and in turn created the worst economic downturn is 50 years should be forced to sell their homes in the Hamptons, but would it be too much to ask them to contribute, proportionately to their income, for the cost of roads, schools, law enforcement, government salaries, etc.? And seriously…do we really think it’s okay that the CEO of Aetna, Mark Bertolini, took home $17.1 million in 2015, while Wal-Mart holds food drives…for its own employees?

So, no, I don’t find this video “hilarious.” I find it arrogant, overly simplistic, and uninformed. But maybe that’s because I’m a Liberal Democrat who can’t help wondering whether Slacker Girl is okay, and whether her behavior isn’t a cry for help, but I digress.

Hard work, yes. But also, paying your fair share. Oh, and maybe some empathy and compassion, too.