Harbor Regional Center is in Torrance, California, where it provides a wide range of services to people with disabilities and their families.
I volunteered at the Center. Eventually, the management asked me to sit on the board of their Consumer Services Committee. This was in 1998. Because I had disabilities, and because I had devoted my life to helping others with disabilities, they wanted my perspective on how they could improve the services they offered.
I eagerly accepted. Being on a board was a first for me. I felt honored, even though this would be another volunteer position that cut into the time I needed to earn my living as a fitness instructor and dance teacher.
This was during the prime of my life. I had already learned a lot and wanted to share my knowledge. Through my own cerebral palsy and dyslexia, I had learned to be independent and interdependent in a dependent world. Despite having a learning disability, I had learned to read. I had learned to walk without a leg brace, despite cerebral palsy. I had leaned to deal with not only my own feelings, even about being labeled mentally retarded because I tested poorly. All these life-giving lessons made me think perhaps I could give back some whispers of hope, be a voice for the voiceless, and an example of what change could look like. I would be the right kind of change, without interference from so-called experts with their own agendas.
I wanted to make my time on the board show that people with disabilities can define for themselves what kind of support they need. This was a new idea at the time. It went beyond what was then the norm. People should not be confined, but freed. I wondered what I would learn from this new experience. And I wondered where it would take me.
Serving on the board was an important part of my effort to bring about a more inclusive, open, and fair society. I emphasized five main ideas.
1. We are human beings and want to be treated with dignity and respect.
2. We have the same inalienable human rights as people without disabilities.
3. We do not want to be looked down on.
4. We need meaning and purpose in life. We want to set our own direction and create our own meaning. No one wants to spend their days on meaningless busywork, which was what most institutions and programs gave us.
5. We have the right to choose which services we receive. Professionals cannot decide for us. People with disabilities should be able to choose from a variety of options.
Being on the board was one sure way I could lift and nourish. I could listen, extend my support, and raise people’s hope. I could be a friend and help them smile and work through their issues. Perhaps, just perhaps, by coming together, we could create a new mindset. I could help them draw upon their experience, wants, and desires to see that they, too, could change their lives and learn to think differently about their situations.
Now, it is twenty-two years later, and we are still grappling with the same issues. Although we have made progress, we still need to show the world who we are, what we need, and what we can offer. The world does not know us as we truly are.
We humans need to build each other up, not tear each other down. We need to find ways to communicate effectively, to understand one another, and to articulate our needs. Just because someone may dress differently, have a different skin color, a different ethnicity, or special needs doesn’t justify taking advantage of them. There is no need to tear each other apart, make it more difficult for anyone to accomplish their goals, or stop them from reaching their dreams. We all need to stop feeling threatened by people who are physically different and want more for themselves. We need to open up to everyone. On a social level, this must happen regarding opportunities, medical insurance/care, and government services.
Then, perchance, we can all live in harmony. I feel the way I do because this has happened to me my entire life.
In closing, I hope all of us in our world can work out our differences, help one another, and change our mindsets; because, without this, nothing is possible. We have seen for generations the other way does not work.
My question for you is how can we make this happen?