Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Gift of Welcome

Last Sunday Joe and I had a drink on a patio on Church Street. The street had been closed and people were wandering around stopping at various booths, or running into people they hadn't seen in a while, or wearing 'low fabric' costumes. In front of where we sat was a booth where people spun a wheel and then won a prize based on where the arrow pointed. The prizes were simple, a bandana, a beachball, some buttons with logos on them, a tape measure.

The guy running the booth was amazing to watch, he just seemed to enjoy people, and he engaged with them all with a sense of fun and his warmth and good humour seemed to be endless. At one point, when there was a line up of people waiting to spin the wheel, a man with an intellectual disability joined the line up. He was a big man, he wore slightly more clothing than would be typical on a hot day, and he had a slight shuffle when he walked. He made people nervous. Some left the line up, others stayed but increased their distance from him. All he did, because it's what we do not what we look like right, was wait quietly and patiently in the line up.

When he got to the front of the line, Joe and I both were tense. The situation was ripe for something nasty to happen, an act of unwelcome, a comment meant for others to hear but for him to not understand. We've seen it before. The guy asked him, like he did all the others, what he'd like to win. He pointed at the bandana. Then he looked up at the guy running the booth and smiled, it lit up his  face, "May I spin now please?"

"Honey, you go right ahead," was the answer. He reached up and spun the wheel, he watched it with great intensity. While the wheel spun, just like with everyone else, the guy at the both joked with him about the day and about the heat and about the fact that others at the booth were wearing only jockstraps. There was a wariness in the face of the fellow with a disability, he, like us, was waiting for the jab, the teasing that wasn't teasing. But it never came, and again, that smile.

The wheel stopped spinning. He'd won the bandana. He was given his prize, and he went happily on his way. The next customer was up. The guy at the booth then did the same, welcomed, joked, laughed along with that customer too. There wasn't even a hitch, a pause, or a moment taken to adjust to difference. Not one.

When we left, I got in the lineup with Joe to spin the wheel. But what I really wanted to do was speak to the guy at the table. We got to the front and I said to him, "We've been sitting having a drink on the patio just behind you, I want to say that you have a wonderful way with people, you have an manner which is just naturally inclusive." Now of course, for those of us in the disability community the word 'inclusive' is a code word, but it isn't so much outside our community. He looked at me and laughed, "What the hell are you talking about," he asked. "Nothing, you just have a really good way with people," I said. He brushed off the compliment. I wasn't going to let it go. I mean, he was treating and talking to me just like anyone else, it wasn't just the other guy, this man has the gift of welcome, I wanted him to get that. "I'm serious I said, you are a kind man who welcomes everyone, I appreciate that so much," I said. This time he took me more seriously, "I don't know what you are refering to, what I'm supposed to have done, but, honey, after all these years, I've learned that people are just people."

I won the tape measure.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Anniversary

Image description: Joe and I kissing, I'm sitting in my power chair, Joe is leaned over with his arm around my shoulders.
Today is our47th anniversary. I did the math, which took me an embarrassingly long time, and realized that we began our relationship in 1969. That's a very long time ago. In gay time, that's nearly the dark ages. We lived our life in the shadows, we crafted truth that concealed a lie, we learned the ways of distance. We didn't touch, ever, in public. Not even the drunken arm over the shoulder, which was one of the few acceptable ways men could touch in those days. We were both terrified that we'd be spotted.

I want to be clear, we weren't afraid of being discovered because we lived with shame, we didn't. We were in love, there was no room for shame. We feared the very real consequences of violence, homelessness and unemployment. We had no protections, from anyone. But we lived with it. Managed it. We knew that we'd been scarred by those first could of decades, but we made it through. We still laugh a lot, we've always laughed a lot. And, I wouldn't have predicted it then, but our love was strong enough to stretch out over 47 years.

Last weekend we were on Church Street at a pre-pride festival and there was booth there wherein one of Toronto's preeminent photographers were taking pictures of couples who love one another expressing that love. Joe and I had done a selfie of us kissing in support of the campaign called 'two men kissing' in response to the slaughter in Orlando which, apparently, had been set off because the shooter had seen 'two men kissing.' We were very cautious with that picture, we don't do public displays of affection.

However, even so, we discussed having a professional shot of us showing affection, showing love, we signed the release forms and went in to get set up. There was a lovely young guy, 43ish, chatting with us, and I told him that I was anxious and a bit afraid. 'The ways of distance' aren't easy to let go of ... Joe and I then both spoke about those years of hiding in plain sight and what touch meant then ... danger, violence, hurt. He, the young fellow, said that it was similar for him when he was young and that there is still a wariness about touch.

The photographer came in, chatted for a few seconds and then we had to kiss, and kiss and kiss again. We had trouble not laughing, we had trouble calming the nerves. but we did it.

Because we have something to celebrate. We have loved in darkness and now we love in light.

Take it from us.

Light is better.

May love always be welcome, may hearts always be free, may kisses never mean death.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Corner to Corner: Intersections

Image description: An intersection with words at each corner: 'hello?' 'anyone listening?' 'is it just me?' and 'am I alone here?'

She stopped me at the pasta sauces. I had stopped to let someone pass and she caught up with me, "Excuse me," she said. I had noticed her in the store, she too was shopping in a power wheelchair, she too was putting her purchases in a shopping bag like I was, she too was big, not me big, but big. "I don't want to intrude on your day," she said. I said I didn't mind and we moved to a space where we would be out of the way.

"I want to know how often you are accused of shoplifting, when you are still in the store, because you are putting stuff in your bag."

I told her that I've never had that happen. I've had people tell me that I shouldn't be buying what I'm buy either because it's sweet or because they think it's frivolous and a waste of benefit dollars. But I've never been accused of shoplifting while still in the store.

She told me that it happened to her all the time. "People in scooters have their baskets, but I can't use a basket, I need to use a bag. I get stopped at least once or twice a week with people assuming I'm stealing."

"That's horrible," I said.

"Being black and disabled, I get the worst of every bad stereotype."

We chatted how my weight had people commenting on my shopping and, she at a different intersection, gets something entirely different even though we were performing the exact same behaviour.

She said she'd been waiting to see someone who shopped like she did, someone a bit bigger, she said kindly, someone who used a bag, and when she saw me she had to ask.

After our brief chat I told her that, oddly, I felt better. She said that she did too. While we both had different experiences we could still talk about those in a context of understanding. It was if she crossed the road from her corner of the intersection to mine.

I wonder why we don't talk more about disability as an experience in multiple diversities, more often. We all talk a lot about 'community' and 'access' and 'welcome' ... so maybe we need to be a community wherein all have access and feel welcome.

Intersections? A great place to stop for a chat.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Stranger: Four of Five

Image description: A drawing of a shirt becoming yellow from a dark brown.
I had just done a workshop for self advocates that was difficult, emotionally draining, and, paradoxically wonderfully rewarding. I was tired. I sat in the lobby of the hotel while Joe went up to get the car keys to take me out for a drive. We were in Halifax and I just wanted to go to one of those spots where your breath is taken away by the sheer beauty of the place.

The reason I waited in the lobby was because I knew that if I went to the room, I would collapse on the bed and that would be it. I didn't want that. I wanted beauty, I wanted quiet, I wanted to sit in the quiet embrace of my relationship with Joe. I had worn my yellow shirt for the first time that day. Many of you know the 'yellow shirt' story and I won't tell it here. But it was the first time I'd sat in public wearing a shirt that was anything but dark. I had all the shades of dark, but dark was the overall theme.

Engrossed in my book, which I'd brought because I wanted to both do something and to send a message to others that I didn't want to engage in conversation. The workshop really was draining, and I really was tired. Because I was reading, I didn't see her coming. Suddenly there was a shadow over my book. I looked up and saw an elderly woman standing blocking the light. She reached over and touched my shoulder.

She said very quietly, "You shouldn't wear yellow. We can see you when you wear yellow."

I sat there stunned. I watched her walk away. She looked so frail. But as frail as she may have been, she had the ability to deliver a blow to my heart, my mind and my soul. I hurt. Really hurt. I suddenly felt stupid. Stupid because I had chosen to wear a shirt that was bright, that brought light into a room, that pointed an arrow at an outsized person.

When Joe came down I begged him to get me out of there right then. He did. I got in the car, slumped down, and we drove away.

That was many years ago.

Much has happened since then.

I had worn that shirt, then, in confidence. I believed that I had been mistaken, in my dark browns and blues, and that I could begin to move out of the shadows. I could take my place, take my space, where ever I was, whatever I was doing. I had been wrong.

I missed the step before confidence. I needed to begin wearing the yellow shirt, the light green shirt, the electric turquoise shirt, the soft lavender, in defiance. I needed to go out knowing that I would be more visible, more easily seen. I knew that I was making myself more of a target. I knew that in breaking convention, I was spitting in the eye of the beholder - and that sounded good to me.

There has been a credible threat against the pride march here in Toronto. I have been clearly stating that people with disabilities who rely on assistive devices to get around need to consider two risks. The first is the risk that everyone else faces, that there might be someone there wishing us more than harm, they are wishing us death. Like the eugenicists, they think we are better dead than gay. Without disabilities, you can clamber over the barriers set on the street to separate the crowd from those in the parade. People with disabilities, like me, will be trapped. Joe and I have talked this through and looked at what possible strategies might be. We have a couple, just in case.

I am wearing my yellow shirt.

Because I want to be seen.

I want my presence there noted.

Because, that lady in the lobby was right. They can see me when I wear yellow. The lady in the lobby was also wrong. She assumed that since they didn't want to see me, I should grant their request. Fuck that. So let them see me. Clearly.

I'm here, I'm a queer on wheels. I'm a fat guy on parade. And that bright yellow shirt, it's a shirt, not a target.

People need to get that. Those with guns, those with judgements, those with insults and those who would abuse me.

I've thought about it a lot since that stranger approached me in the lobby. I think I've learned from it. Here's what I want her to know:

It's a shirt.

Not a target.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Invisibility: The Cure

Image description: A Tim's card with the words 'great coffee' above and 'cures invisablity' below. On each side of the care is the word 'Magic' surrounded by pink fairy dust

She was sitting in the sun, resting her back on the base of a streetlamp. Her hat was in front of her with a few meagre coins in it. The corner she was sitting on was at one of the wealthier intersections of the city. People, with shopping bags full, swarmed by her, not seeing her, not stopping. I, however, was headed right towards her.

I've written here before that I keep 5$ gift cards for Tim Hortons in my wallet to give to people on the street. In winter they can get something hot, in summer something cold. And if you're not Canadian, you need to know that here in Toronto at least, you are never far from a Tim's. I have been criticized for giving the cards, not cash, but, it's what I do and it's what I'm comfortable with.

Just as I got to her a group of men and women stepped right in front of me. Right into my path, as if I wasn't there. They stood there at the light, waiting. I was in a bit of a hurry and so I said to the couple who stood between me and the woman, the couple that was part of the group who somehow couldn't see me, "Excuse me ..." They looked back, saw me and stepped over a bit, as if I was jockeying for a place at the curb.

Instead, I leaned down and said to the woman, "Hello!" She looked up and responded, "Hi!" All the while we chatted about the weather, and the crowd waited for the light to change. I pulled my wallet out. I handed over the card to her and explained that it had 5$ on it. She said she was needing something cold and carefully, very carefully, put it in the pocket of her pants.

I didn't notice, because I was focused on talking to her, that we had made those at the curb very, very, uncomfortable. I know this only because as the light changed she said to me, "Did you see what happened when you spoke to me?" I said that I didn't, I had been looking at her. "Suddenly people could see us. We were both invisible and then we became really visible. They were so uncomfortable with us both being human and being kind to each other." I wondered, I said to her, if maybe it's okay to make people a bit uncomfortable some times.

"Thank you," she said as I left.

"Enjoy the card," I said.

She said, "I will, but that's not what I'm thanking you for. Thanks seeing me. Thanks for making me visible. I felt like I mattered for a few minutes."

"You do," I said.

Joe told me that he had seen the same thing. He had stood and watched people react with real discomfort as my act of giving was held in stark relief to their act of not caring. I told him what she had thanked me for and then said, "But the thing is, I was invisible until I spoke to her, it's like we both, for a moment, became real, flesh and blood, people. I wish I'd thanked her, because, for a few moments, she made me visible too."

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Time of Her Life


Image description: A clock face with the 12, 3, 6 and 9, diving the face. Between 12 and three the word 'congregate' is writting in red and underlined with the words 'for your own good' written in lavender. between 3 and 6 the word 'segregate' is written in red and underlined and in purple below are the words 'for the good of others' between 6 and 9 the word 'restrict' is written in red and underlined and the words 'for the good of the system' are written, and between 9 and 12 the word 'freedom' is written in red and underlined with the words 'for your good from your voice' are written.
This is beginning to happen more and more often. And because of that I can testify that dreams, even impossible dreams, do come true. I am not writing this as an 'inspirational story' I want to be careful to assert this right up front. This story isn't about anything other than how wrong we, who are professionals, and we, who are parents, and we, who are paid to assess, can get things very wrong. This story isn't about anything else but how the voice, clearly spoken, of someone with a disability can be buried under the opinions of others, smothered by stacks of paperwork and silenced by expertise. That's what it's about. It's about running into people, years later, and seeing the life they had now, and what we predicted then.

I don't want to even remember how long ago I met her. Let's just say I've been doing this now for over 40 years and it was near the start of my career in the community. I wasn't long in institutional care, so very near the beginning. She was known to be "non compliant" at the time, which just meant, and I did see that then, that she was what my Grandmother would have called, "contrary." She didn't willingly submit to the authority of others. She wasn't "out of control" even though everyone thought she was. She never lashed out physically, never broke anything purposely, never spat, or kick, or slapped anyone. She did break rules, but only the ones she thought were unfair.

When planning for her future she stated that she wanted to live independently. Everyone thought this was a very bad idea. They came up with all sorts of reasons why it was an 'inappropriate dream,' as if there is such a thing, but, though no one said it, her gender made the difference. I'd like to say, remember this was nearly 40 years ago, but I'm not sure that the same kinds of decisions aren't being made today. They came up with the 'excuse' of vulnerability. It was an easy sell. They talked about her vulnerability from only one perspective: the world is more dangerous for women than for men. They didn't talk from the perspective of disability: people with disabilities may well be safer walking down the street in their neighbourhood than they are in the group home in which they live. Now we are working to change that now, but we weren't doing jack shit about it then.

From the very first, I have worried about the conception of people with disabilities being vulnerable because they have a disability. That makes us lazy. "Well, can't change that, so we're done and dusted." I've always thought that because we didn't teach safety skills and abuse prevention skills and self advocacy skills, we were kind of responsible for at least some of the issues regarding vulnerability. I had not, at this time, developed 'The Ring of Safety' which are the skills people with disabilities need to learn in order to live more safely both in services and in the community, so all I could do was suggest that given her skill set, she needed to learn skills that would allow her to fulfil her dream and move into the community. Here's what I hate writing, because of immense pressure, not from the agency I worked for, but from the team supporting her. I did add a line in the report about her vulnerability.

This is something I regret.

I have not always been strong enough to do my job both ethically and well.

Well, she did well on her behaviour plan, primarily because the plan looked at how staff needed to respond when 'behaviours' occurred and when resistance was met with reasonable discussion, a new kind of relationship was begun with the staff in the home. I don't know what happened in the intervening years, because I was done, and I was gone.

Then, the other day, I noticed a woman in a scooter, headed towards me smiling. I thought I recognized her, so I waved. She pulled up beside me and said 'Hi.' It was the voice. I remembered her voice. We pulled off to the side to talk. She told me that she'd been using the scooter for about a year and laughed and laughed as she talked about the things she destroyed learning to drive it. I asked her where she was living and she told me about her apartment a bit nearer the top of the city. She paused and looked at me, "I'm in my own place. I've had it a long time."

I was thrilled. I knew this was her big dream, her professionally determined, psychologically assessed, 'impossible dream' came true. I asked her what it was like to have her own place. She looked at me strangely. She said, "People ask me that all the time and I don't know what to say. How do you like having your own place?"

You know I don't think at all about 'liking having my own place,' I like my place but that's a different thing. I never assumed I wouldn't have my own place so having it was kind of immaterial. What I had taken for granted, she had had to fight for, tooth and nail.

We spoke a few more minutes and then she said, "Do you still work at the same place?" I told her I didn't. Then, I said, "I want you to know I'm different now, I listen better and I have more courage about what I need to say and when I need to say it."

"Good," she said, "good."

Friday, June 24, 2016

Stranger: Three of Five

The presentation was over. It had gone well. I'd enjoyed the audience and the audience had seemed to enjoy my presentation style. I was packing up, getting things ready to go back into my wheelchair bag or into my briefcase, a few people had asked questions afterwards but the room was nearly empty now.

Then, she came in. She was a young woman, I had noticed her right from the start. She had a unique and quite beautiful tattoo wrapped around her upper arm. I also noticed that she was one of the people who had reacted emotionally to a lot of the stories I told and was also one of the few who had the daring to ask a question. I say daring because, the larger the group, the fewer the questions. There are risks in asking any question, but those risks increase where there are more there to hear the question and then judge you for asking. It's odd that those who come to an event to learn can be very judgemental about those who participate in their own learning process.

All that to say, I recognized her. Joe tells me that I sometimes explain too much, I tell him, "yeah but it's interesting right"? Joe gives me a look that I've yet to really be able to interpret.

She approached me at the table and I could tell, which surprised me, that she was quite nervous. She'd seemed so confident during the lecture itself. When she got to the table she put her hand out for me to shake, which I did and she introduced herself. She didn't introduce herself by name, or by occupation, as most do, she introduced herself by gender. "Hello, I am a woman," she said. I was nonplussed because, though I am a gay man I recognize women with a fair degree of accuracy. I said, "Clearly, you're going to say something to me that makes that introduction necessary." She nodded, gravely, without a smile.

I had told the story of Ruby in Florida when she was 3 as the closing story in the lecture. She said she liked the story and asked, "Am I correct in assuming that you love that little girl?" I said that I did and that I had mentioned that fact in the story.

"Well, then, she said, this total stranger, "I noticed that you used the word "B*tch" in your lecture a couple of times. I nodded, that I had.

"I have a question, how are you going to feel the first time Ruby is called that as a name simply because she's a woman?"

I didn't have to think.

"I'll be angry."

"Then why, during lectures to make it an OK word for people to say? Why do you make it easier for a little girl that you love to be hurt by such an ugly word. You recognize it's an ugly word right?"

I was standing there stunned. To be honest, I'd not thought about the word anywhere near as deeply as I was being challenged to think about it. My first response, as it always is, was defensiveness. But I got over that fairly quickly, I think, primarily, because I really love Ruby and Sadie, who came along a little later.  I said "I'll think about what you've said."

She nodded, a bit of disappointment on her face, she didn't understand that when I say, 'I'll think about it' I really will.

As she reached the door I called to her. "OK, I've thought about it." She smiled, surprised. "I won't use that word ever again in a lecture and I will take it out of my speech and out of my writing. You're right, I love those girls, I love my women friends, I respect the women I work with, I need my language to show which side I'm on."

I've kept to my word. I've slipped a couple of times, and I've apologized when I've done so. Further, it's out of my spoken language now, pretty much for good and I haven't written the word since.

A stranger, with courage in her heart, came and challenged me.

And  I was made different.

She may never understand how deeply that confrontation changed me, how it made me think about the simple things we can do to make the world safe for women. I learned to be intentional in interacting with the world that those two girls are growing up in.

Love, isn't just an emotion, it's a responsibility.