On the spectrum of disability

Before I worked at an independent living center I attended a workshop with Matthew Sanford, a yoga teacher paralyzed from the chest down.  In the workshop, he brought up the fears able-bodied people feel around disabilities as well as the commonalities among people in both conditions.  A gifted teacher, Sanford has provided helpful guidance to me and many others.  His intimacy with trauma, disability, and healing speaks deeply to me, as does his mission to change the perspective of the medical community and to educate on the mind-body relationship.

I think his teaching on yoga and healing is applicable to everyone.  Hasn’t each of us experienced some kind of trauma, some kind of search for healing or wholeness?  Whether we have a visible or invisible disability, or we simply have emotional wounds or limited beliefs about ourselves or limited social skills, we need to find our wholeness and self-respect.  We need to find our meaning and connection with others.

I share an office with a man who is quadriplegic, and each day when he arrives at work, I remove his hat and pull a file for him.  I consider these small tasks a privilege to perform because he is my friend and cohort.  And because they are a clear expression of our interrelation with each other.  I know this man as complex and normal as anyone, though I also think he’s a bit more evolved in having come to terms with his disability and valuing himself and his life.  He is bright, has a dry and deep sense of humor, a cool demeanor under stress, and an easy way of asking for and giving help.  His “boundaries” are strong but flexible, and his solid kindly presence is a comfort to me.

Another coworker is in a wheelchair and has a tracheotomy tube:  He cannot eat solid food, and he speaks with a whisper.  Yes, I feel sad for him, and I feel scared at the prospect of what life gives us to manage, and I wonder if he feels left out of social meals and gatherings, as I have from time to time.  At the same time, I am grounded by reality in his presence, sobered by our common human condition with all its vulnerability and tragedy.

My coworkers, both able and compromised physically, have taught me to take difficulty more in stride.  As a staff, we provide respect for anyone who comes in, from the special needs kids who help out twice a week with their teacher, to the man with schizophrenia who imagines people trying to tap into his computer and control his life, to the young man on parole trying to manage reduced vision.  The welcoming attitude demonstrates, or should I say embodies, the truth, that everyone has worth and value, that no one is lesser.  In fact, I barely see disability anymore.

I see my commonality with the state of disability when I encounter my psychological ruts or react, fight, say things from my childish self.  We are all limited in our humanity, even as we withdraw from others or grow angry and hurt them.  I think of my own introversion and lack of skill with boundaries, and I think of close friends with bipolar disorder, or people I know who are narcissistic and never seem to change, only to implode in their marriages or work lives as they age.   I often find myself wondering if might be possible for all of us to show up without hiding these things, and yet seek connection and resources and new learning about wellness and emotional freedom.

The challenges of love and loneliness, work and finances are held in common.  My coworkers who talk with me about disability, about growing up with cerebral palsy, managing MS, dealing with daily life, have taught me that our struggles are similar, if not varying in degrees.

Most profoundly, I am aware of the shared experience of losing physical function.  We seem to have a tendency to equate physical appearance with who one is, to make assumptions about personality or inner reality. And yet we also know, even if only on an unconscious level, that we will all experience disability, or death.  As a yoga teacher I am curious about what it means to be whole within an injured or deteriorating body.  I seek to learn how to experience more embodiment in such a state.  To help others yes, but also because I know we all will experience some disability at some point.  And because I seek to come to terms with my own eventual decline.

I see shared experience when I teach yoga at work while all of us sit in chairs.   A lesson in the fundamentals of yoga is absorbing in whatever physical form.  Someone’s practice is interesting to me whether it is a standing pose, a difficult arm balance, or aligning the spine and feeling through one’s torso while sitting.  Each of us struggles to be present, to let go, align, and breathe—to wake up to our experience.

Matthew has a DVD called “Beyond Disability.”  I believe the title refers to starting where we are, finding wholeness from there, and healing.   His personal experience with trauma and loss infuses his work as a yoga teacher dealing with injured bodies.  Yet he is so fully engaged in life that one sees how the term disabled becomes less relevant, and he inspires others to engage as well.

Truly this opportunity to work where I do has taken me beyond the concept of “normal” just as it has taken me beyond the concept of disability.  I barely see disability any more, and I am grateful to be less self conscious of what I perceive as my own shortcomings, such as my shyness and recurring boundary issues, to let go of more ego as well as its brother insecurity.   I feel cleansed, cleared to learn to show up as myself and to do my best given my own abilities and circumstances.

Over time, I have grown accustomed to a model in which we respect the state in which people find themselves, and it reminds me of the acceptance and loving-kindness we provide for ourselves in meditation.  At work we make things work for individuals or make a mutual decision to look for another environment.  Time is not wasted pounding a “square peg into a round hole.”  The respectful and welcoming attitude at work which seemed novel to me at first has become mundane in its constancy, and yet it is rare.  Might it be extended?   Can you imagine CEOs and CFOs, all the competitive high tech and financial and healthcare folks able to acknowledge their own disability or dysfunction and be more evenly respectful of others?

Each day I learn about our rights to live as fully as we are able, and I learn that if we claim these rights, there are supports for us.  If we get past the anger and our own ego/insecurity, we usually find aid, whether from God, humans, or nature.

Disability is more visible in some, but the challenge and aspiration is the same for all, and it is to live as fully as possible.  For society the gift of people with disabilities claiming their rights is great:  to see that life and love and heart are not dependent on fully functioning arms and legs.  That, even in a rupture between mind and body, body is alive in mind.  And sprit is alive regardless, reminding us of the mystery in our existence.

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