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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Don't Worry Be Happy

Okay, I am steeling the title of this post from Bobby McFerrin's well-known song. I love this song as I take worrying to an Olympic level. I am in other words a world class worrier. My worries have worries. I worry if I am not worrying. I worry about everything. The apple does not fall far from the tree--my father was a gifted worrier too. One thing I do not worry about it is being happy. Sure the last six months have been very hard. Yes, I worried I was slipping into an abyss of depression. Not so now. My good days far out number the bad. I am verging on healed and am busy making plans for the future. But prior to my wound I would classify as a happy person. Yes, worriers can be happy. I was not always a happy person by nature. My happy view of life was one of the few good by products of divorce. I was always a planner--I planned years in advance, set markers to reach toward given goals and was driven. I remain a driven person but do not plan my life or set rigid goals to reach. Raising my son taught me so much about life and happiness. But here I am meandering too far from what I want to write about, specifically the simple fact I am a happy person. I love my life. It is rich and full. I get great joy from teaching, writing, sports, skiing and kayaking, and enjoy the company of my family and friends. Beyond my own happy existence, I can readily report that most people I know with a disability are also happy. Sure we people with a disability rail against social injustice but separate this from our overall happiness.

Being happy and having a disability are thought to be mutually exclusive. The psychological and medical literature is clear--we people with a disability are not supposed to be happy yet we are. Of course such sentiments are buried under academic jargon. But I assure you the general idea that disability excludes happiness dominates social discourse. It is revealed in headlines in newspapers, stories of overcoming disability, and other archetypes associated with disability. The general belief is that the worse a disability the more likely it is for that person to be unhappy. I think this notion is grossly wrong. Happiness and disability have nothing to do with one another. If you were miserable before being disabled I bet the odds are good the same person will be miserable after they are disabled. This reminds me that I was once told by a friend that I was a wise ass before I was crippled and that I remain a wise ass. Disability did not change me. The point is happiness and relating it to disability is misleading. Misleading in the extreme. Happiness or lack of it is not the problem people with disability encounter. No, our problem is social isolation and a refusal on the part of society to negotiate or accommodate our difference. In my case, the country remains largely inaccessible to wheelchairs. There is no real social commitment to making the country accessible. Sure we have the ADA that attempts to force businesses and school to be accessible but no one aside from people with a disability really care about access. Like it or not access remains poorly understood and under appreciated. I often see access as the first line item cur from limited budgets. People simply do not care nor do they want to spend any money on said access.

Social isolation and happiness are two very different things. Social isolation can lead and often does to depression. But no one asks why are people with a disability socially isolated to begin with. These thoughts were prompted by an article in the British Journal of Medicine. The article concerned the "well being" and "happiness" of people who are locked in or experience locked in syndrome. If you want to understand what it is like to be locked in read Jean-Dominique Bauby's poetic Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Few books move me to tears but his book did. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be locked in--unable to move at all with one's mind intact. Of course some people also look at me and think the same thing--I cannot imagine being paralyzed. As I often joke with others I cannot recommend the experience. But paralysis, even locked in syndrome, has nothing to do with happiness. And the researchers who wrote in the British Journal of Medicine seem shocked. People with locked in syndrome are happy. The majority of people with locked in syndrome are happy. Imagine that--happy disabled people. Happy severely disabled. Its a miracle! No, its not. The shocker to me is that people, your average person as well as people in the health care profession, do not get it--yes we people with a disability are happy. Oh the nerve! I guess we people with a disability are supposed to be miserable. You know pine to be "normal" again. Well my idea of normal includes paralysis as an integral part of life. Do I want to be paralyzed? No. But who among us considers our bodies ideal. Men often wish they were stronger, more fit or had more hair. Women want to be taller, slender and have a larger bust. Only a tiny percentage of us meet the cultural ideals of body types. We simply make do with our strengths and weakness. In this we people with a disability are identical to our peers who are bipedal. We do the best with what we have to work with. I have severe spasms. I use those spasms to my advantage. When I transfer I use the spasms to pull my wheelchair toward me. I thus do not really need brakes on my wheelchair. I could offer many other examples but I do not want to be labor the point. We people with a disability are no different than anyone else. We can be happy, sad, in love, alone, and experience anything your average bipedal person does. The problems we have, the physical ones are obvious and many like me let their freak fly. If there is one good thing about having a disability it is that I do not worry about what others think of me. The odds, I know, are very good, strangers do not think much of my existence. This is liberating in many ways--I am free to be who I am. Indeed, it is a position of power in some ways. People like Ed Roberts knew this and called it cripple power. Hence we all have the power to be happy--disabled and non disabled alike.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. For me, one of the things that I often get pegged with is the "the overly happy" archetype, which really is a variation of the concept that, as a woman with a disability, I am not supposed to be happy in the first place. So when I am perceived as happy, it is perceived as being higher than the average person's happiness. My point is, that either way, our emotions are never read as existing in a neutral place, outside of our disability. Our emotional state is either read as "caused by" or "in spite of" our disability. - G

Carl Thompson said...

Great post!

Carrie Turner said...

Thank you ... what I like most about your blog is that you don't minimize reality and you don't succumb to mainstream agendas, i.e., disability stereotypes.

william Peace said...

Carrie, Disability is the perfect cure for a big ego! Society has a way of reminding me of my diminished social standing--pun intended. I easily and knowingly reject stereotypes notions of disability.
Georgina, Thanks for the kind words. I get pegged for being the "super crip"and hate it. It is dehumanizing. As a woman with a disability I consider you a minority within a minority. Is it not amazing how no matter what we do as humans it some how always is related to our disability. Ugh, we are people first and foremost. Disability is a mere part of our existence

Anonymous said...

I just loved your post! I found your blog through my professor, Stephen Kuusisto, and I really enjoy reading it. This post is the latest in a series of excellent points. I can't wait to see what you'll post next. Best wishes on your recovery! Cait, also known as "the redhead with all the tattoos".

william Peace said...

Cait, Steve is a great guy. He is a rare man who can make one think and laugh at the same time. Add in he is a great writer and you are lucky to be his student.
Glad you like my blog. Would love to see your tattoos. I find body art fascinating. I admire women who are tattooed. Goes against the grain even with popularity of tattoo. I tried to talk steve into a tattoo. I had no luck. BTW, red heads abound in my family.