How I Prevailed and Progressed Forward
By Karen Lynn
Dear Professor Frare, colleagues, friends, family, and students of the Kean University Historical Society. It is an honor, and a privilege, to stand before you this afternoon. Thank you for asking me to be your guest speaker and to be here today.
It would have hardly seemed possible when I began this quest, for me to stand up before you today and express everything I have worked so hard to overcome throughout my entire live. I am not one to idly sit back on my duff, waiting for others to take action for me, to think for me, or to decide my entire life for me! It has been a long journey. The stakes, very high! But I have survived this path despite all its jagged roads and turns, and more challenge’s than most people could ever imagine. I have almost reached the mountain top and all its glory.
And even thought my shuffle bal-changes were not like Sammy Davis Jr.’s, my taps were like music to my soul. My achievements in dance not only set me free in body and mind, but empowered my sense of worth to move against barriers and odds that seemed impossible to the “normal” person’s eye. This dichotomy between what I knew I could do, and what other people wanted to limit me to, would happen again, and again, and again in every aspect of my life. The image that society has about people inflicted with Cerebral Palsy, or C.P. as the insiders call it; is an image of a C.P young boy or girl staying eternally cute and helpless forever- but in all truth and reality- we C.P.ers grow up to be adult’s, in adult bodies, with the same outer systems we had when we were children. The only difference is that now, our outer manifestation has changed. Puberty has arrived, and we have grown up and matured. We are like everyone else internally, with the same wants, needs, and desires, although, our outer envelopes are very different, externally, in that we are disabled.
We aren’t so cute anymore. It repulses people to see us wrinkling; in hammy down clothes, drooling from the face, and needing help from other’s to accomplish our daily living tasks. To society, it’s not so appealing any longer, it is a turn off, and thus, we are tucked away quietly and conveniently in guild edges detention homes, not wanting to be looked at or visited except for those experts! Thank goodness, I made a decision not to end up in this way. And, thank God, I had the wits and ability before me. I not only had a mother, who shared the same visions and desires as me, but she worked tirelessly to give me that independence even when no one else believed it was possible.
Fortunately for me, my mother had a lot of courage and internal strength. She was a very, very progressive and pro-active person. She had a very special way about her. And though she was very serious about my care and the way she cared for me, she also had a presence and foresight about the things that I was going through throughout my life. She also had a warm, gentle, caring, and most loving manner about herself. I could not imagine having anyone else but her to call my Mama! She nurtured me with words from my ethnic tradition, understanding that I needed the encouragement and room to develop as a person in order to grow and accomplish those things in my life, that were so essential to my being. She prepared me to fit into the landscape of society.
It wasn’t that easy, though, as I am still climbing the ladder to my success. But, I have kept going! I have done to the naked eye, things that have looked impossible. I have learned to hop, skip, jump, and run, in a full length leg brace, when all the “experts” looked at me with their tongue’s hanging out with amazement. My mother knew when to listen and when to stand up for me. One time during my clinic evaluation, my mother insisted that my leg brace be unlocked so that I could walk normally instead of with a locked leg. I learned to dance, while the experts at school would not allow my dance teacher, Al Gilbert to come and teach others, because he did not have a degree, yet, he knew more then the doctor’s or therapist knew! I even got a job, with my mother’s help; as a sales girl. Shortly there after, I was promoted as a PBX switchboard operator, rather then settling for the label of being “Mentally Retarded”, or working in a workshop amongst people who had more severe disability folding boxes.
The very people who should have been cheering me on, and looking outside the box- actually made things worse for me, and hindered my life. I understood all to well about the way the bureaucratic system worked and how unfair, rigid, and out-moded it was. But, I was not going to go away quietly. I kicked, and scream in my own tasteful manner, and let them know that I had a right to an education, even though I had a disability, and needed an alterative approach. The system, its processes, the counselors, along with the tools, methods, and methodologies didn’t work, and they didn’t measure my ability correctly. Regrettably, this is an area where great improvement and research still needs to be made. But the greatest improvement that needs to be made is in people’s understanding.
The fact that I am here standing before you today shows that idea’s are changing.
This university has been a pioneer in accepting disabled people on all levels. It has taken well over 30 years – step by step to get here where we are today. So let us vow to ourselves and the community to do everything possible we can to open our hearts, minds, and spirits to end all discrimination.
In spite of all my kicking and fighting, I made every effort to work though channels, by going along with the “experts,” and having an open-mind, but it did me no good what-so-ever. They just wouldn’t and couldn’t see that I was going to fly despite their authoritative decisions. With all the determination within my gut, I had to do something to turn this around. I had to be positive, and I had to have faith in my own ability to change my circumstances, the system, and how they treated the disabled. I had had all that I could take. I had decided that I was going to be treated with dignity and respect. Thus, I had to be strong-minded and listen to my own heartbeat. I couldn’t be swayed, and I had to have a will of iron in order to face the perilous journey before me. I would have to file a law suit which no one ever filed before. And I would have to spend countless hours writing letter after letter, and phone call after phone call. My dance lessons were simple and easy compared to this mission. Once I sat down with the lawyer who was going to represent me, I felt as though I was dancing without a disability at all. Doing a soft shoe, and using my left foot and toes in the graceful way that I was taught, was like a piece of cake compared to this.
The lawyer mentioned to me that I could either win this presidential Civil Right Case and open the doors for all disabled people, or lose it completely. So, with batted breath, I waited for three and ½ long years, to get the verdict. And, I had won! Six years, from that day, I earned the A.A. degree which was the foundation for everything else I worked so hard to achieve. I would become an adaptive dance and fitness instructor, mastered the art of cooking, and being a responsible, independent, and productive human being. I even perfected my writing skills and publish my autobiographical story, “The Broken Hoof,” which, in its infancy won second prize in the Kaleidoscope Literary Pose fiction Art Award of 1983.
I even was elected to sit on the Executive Board of Protection and Advocacy Inc, developed my own website at: www.whispersofhope.org, and have written many articles as I continue the fight to speak out and make this a kinder and gentle place for everyone to live in. I have given to others without thinking twice about myself in a selfless way.
In closing I will leave you with a few very important thoughts before I answer any questions that you may have for me.… Search your hearts and souls and see how you can made a difference to pay it forward to change our world and someone else life- How can you personally change the course of someone else’s life that needs a helping hand? How can you as a professional personally make a difference? How can you find ways to break down the walls of discrimination that bind individuals from moving up the career ladder of opportunity while looking out side the box? How can you truly mentor and inspire other’s and help them achieve their dreams and choices? How have you personally done something today to value and respect a particular individual’s goals and dreams without judgments or conclusions? And how can you take an active role to help someone who wants and needs the path and way made straight? Can you dig deep to look beyond yourself to mentor and take an active role to make this strangers dreams come true? Can you really value the lives of others by valuing there human rights? Can you honestly turn your backs from competition and competing with those who need it the most? And finally how can we all take an active role in winning the war against discrimination?
A Long time ago, I found a poem by a famous British amputee; William E. Henley. He lost both his legs at the age of 12. When I first read these words in college, these words from Maya Angelou sung sweetly in my spirit. Angelou first sees this as a mark of paternalistic contempt. She is held by a white superintendent in school who has just told her class, to be content to be athletes and cotton pickers. She turns it into an anthem or song of praises for our people and hers. It goes like this… “It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishment the scroll. I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.
I leave you with these sweet empowering words- take them home with you today to digest! Think of ways deep within your own consciousness on how you personally can make a positive mark on this world and leave a path behind you that no one else has ever left before.
Thank you for having me here today and for allowing me to share a little piece of my life with all of you. I will now answer any questions or thoughts that may cross your mind. Again, thank you for having me.