On Serenity, Courage, Wisdom, and the Value of Community

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I’ve been dealing with a difficult situation lately. A person whom I care about deeply, by no fault of his own, is being firmly trapped in a jar, blocking him from his dreams. Recently I’ve been presented with a few courses of action I could take, all of which have a slight chance of helping this individual, and an unknown chance of making things worse for him.

This situation was weighing on my mind and heart when I went to my local synagogue to observe the Yom Kippur holiday a few days ago. I don’t practice Jewish rituals as “religiously” (for lack of a better term) as I used to. In fact, I admit the main reason I went to the synagogue was because my friend wanted me to go with her. I came in full of mental unrest about the situation, wanting to pray, but not sure where to begin.

I used to picture God as a literal guy in the sky, with a voice that boomed like thunder, and a team of angel-minions who came down to Earth to answer our prayers. After eleven years of postsecondary training in the natural and social sciences, my beliefs are pretty solidly agnostic. There could be a supernatural being somewhere, maybe, but we don’t know enough to prove it yet. I don’t really believe there is a definable entity listening to my prayers. But, I still find prayer to be an important meditative exercise that can bring me clarity on my own desires and priorities, and it can help me find a direction for my life’s energy.

As I listened to the familiar Jewish melodies from my childhood, though, the only words I could find to pray were the words of the Christian Serenity Prayer I quoted at the top of this post. Give me the serenity to accept what I can’t change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. I’ve already written about the Serenity Prayer in this post about being a fighter.

So, let’s break this message down a bit, as it bears great relevance to the disability experience.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change. There are many aspects of disability we can’t control. We often have limited power over the medical facts of our disabilities. Nor can we always control the ableist beliefs or behaviors of others toward us. Sometimes, we can get caught up in desperate efforts to escape our disabilities, or to change the minds of people who just won’t listen. These efforts can drain our energy and distract us from other, more fruitful ventures. We can find serenity, calm, and peace when we are able to accept what is instead of struggling for what can’t be.

Grant me the courage to change the things I can. Sometimes, our actions are effective. We can change our own beliefs and behavior. We can advocate for ourselves when a system is inaccessible. We can give time and money to people in need and groups working on the right side of justice. We can exercise our power to vote, to protest, and to lobby our lawmakers. Sometimes though, we are afraid to let go of the status quo, or we may question how effective our actions will be. When we hear about oppression, it is often easier to just switch the news channel or the browser window, to hope that someone else will act instead of us. Efforts to make change may bear negative consequences. But if we can find the courage to make change, we can improve our lives and the lives of others.

Grant me the wisdom to know the difference. This is where I have been struggling most. Not knowing if I can make things better for this person I care about, or if it’s time to walk away. “Knowing the difference” is likely the biggest struggle for many of us. After all, if we always knew when to act, and when to stay put, we wouldn’t ever waste any time fighting fruitless battles. In disability circles, we often talk about “picking our battles.” Knowing which battles to choose takes wisdom and experience.

As I reflected on the Serenity Prayer, it occurred to me that we can gather the wisdom to “know the difference” from community. When we put several heads together toward solving a problem, we can collectively figure out where we are able to effect change. When we work together, we are less likely to be led astray by fears keeping us from acting when we should, or anger driving us to slam our heads into brick walls.

Fortunately, the person I mentioned has a team of individuals looking out for his best interests. I am grateful for the partnership of others who recognize what is happening and put their minds and hearts toward finding the right course of action. We temper each other’s emotional reactions to the situation and collaborate to find the right path. We can accomplish much more together than I can alone.

Near the end of the Yom Kippur service, someone spoke about “holy work.” She said that “holy work” is work that (a) pulls a person out of their comfort zone, and (b) is work that requires community to be achieved. Indeed, my work with this person has challenged me and disrupted my sense of comfort. And, it is work I cannot do by myself. But, no matter what the future holds, I remind myself that the work I have already done has created positive experiences for this person which cannot be undone.

No matter what your spirituality (or lack thereof) is, I hope you may agree that the work we do in the disability community is “holy work” by the above definition. Overcoming centuries of deep-seated ableism in our history is something that disrupts our comfort, and it is something we cannot do alone. When we offer each other solidarity, wisdom, and advice for tackling challenges; when we work together to change policies affecting our lives; when we take the time to lift each other up, we are doing the “holy work” to build a positive future for our disabled brethren. Our nondisabled allies, too, are invaluable workers alongside us. May we, together, find the serenity of acceptance, the courage toward action, and the wisdom to carve our path to justice.

New Resource! Sex Ed for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

The National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) has just released a new sex-education guide for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Unlike other resources, this one is freely available to individuals to use for self-teaching, although it can also be useful in class and workshop settings. The guide includes a sequence of videos, featuring the voices of peers with IDD, along with a written discussion guide-written in plain language with images to aid understanding. Topics include sex and gender, puberty, masturbation, relationships and consent, birth control, and avoiding sexually transmitted diseases. I found that the videos and discussion guide convey positive, empowering messages about sexuality combined with straightforward information needed to make safe choices. If you have an IDD, work with people with IDD, or have colleagues in the field, please take a look at this resource and consider sharing it.

Check out the sex ed guide here!

Throwback Post! Don’t Try to Look Through My Eyes, Respect Me Instead!

Three years ago, the Foundation Fighting Blindness held a social media campaign called #HowEyeSee It. Participants posted videos of themselves attempting to do basic things in the dark or with their eyes closed. The campaign also featured videos meant to simulate progressive vision loss for viewers. The purpose was to raise “awareness” of preventable blindness.

As someone who has studied the harmful effects of blindness simulations (especially unstructured ones), I was active in the backlash against this campaign. In addition too sharing my publications on this topic, I posted several personal commentaries on my social media feed. Below is a short piece I wrote, focusing on how I wanted people to “understand” me without blindfolding themselves. I think it is applicable to the concept of disability wisdom more generally.

“I keep hearing people say that putting on a blindfold is a great thing, because it helped them to not take their sight for granted. Or to understand what I see. Here’s my response:

Sighted friends, I don’t mind if you take your sight for granted. Go ahead. I know you enjoy using your sight, and that doesn’t bother me. Of course if you ever lose your sight, I’ll be there to help you adjust.

I don’t need you to stop taking your sight for granted, and I don’t need you to see things through my eyes.
Here’s how you can support me:

-Hire me, or recommend me to others as an employee, without fear that I can’t perform the job.

-Invite me over for a potluck dinner and let me bring a dish. Don’t worry that I’ll fall down the stairs at your house or that I’ll burn myself in the kitchen.

-Work with me to improve accessibility and fight discrimination.

-Let my blind friends go places with their children without thinking their children take care of them.

-Let me go about my business on the street without grabbing me, steering me or constantly fearing I will get hit by a car.

-Above all, recognize I am more similar to you than different.

You don’t have to put on a blindfold or close your eyes to understand the most important thing about #Blindness: the best kindness you can give me is respect.”

Prescribing Disability Pride

Last Saturday, my colleagues and I shook things up at the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics (SDBP) annual meeting. Bethany Ziss, a developmental pediatrician at the Children’s Institute in Pittsburgh; Noor Pervez, director of community engagement at the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network; Cara Liebowitz, development director at the National Council on Independent Living; and I spoke about disability pride, language preferences, intersectionality, neurodiversity, disability culture and more. All four of us are visibly disabled. We decided to make our presentation public so that others can learn from our collective wisdom.

Four presenters seated around a conference table
Bethany Ziss, Arielle Silverman, Cara Liebowitz and Noor Pervez seated around a conference table.

New Book! Ableism: The Causes and Consequences of Disability Prejudice

It was my honor and pleasure to contribute a chapter to this new book, written by my colleague and friend, dr. Michelle Nario-Redmond. Ableism: The Causes and Consequences of Disability Prejudice is a text I wish I could have read as an undergraduate student, trying to wrap my head around the root causes of the exclusion I know so well.

Synopsis from the website:

Ableism, prejudice against disabled people stereotyped as incompetent and dependent, can elicit a range of reactions that include fear, contempt, pity, and inspiration. Current literature— often narrowly focused on a specific aspect of the subject or limited in scope to psychoanalytic tradition—fails to examine the many origins and manifestations of ableism. Filling a significant gap in the field, Ableism: The Causes and Consequences of Disability Prejudice is the first work to synthesize classic and contemporary studies on the evolutionary, ideological, and cognitive-emotional sources of ableism. This comprehensive volume examines new manifestations of ableism, summarizes the state of research on disability prejudice, and explores real-world personal accounts and interventions to illustrate the various forms and impacts of ableism

Read more and purchase a print copy here

Print disabled? Download from Bookshare here