Laura Hershey: Writer, Poet, Activist, Consultant Rotating Header Image

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The Halloween Costume Dilemma

When I was a kid, I coveted the presents that came on Christmas and birthdays, and I stuffed myself on Thanksgiving. I felt like a real sleuth searching for Easter eggs. I took a pyromaniac joy in the Fourth of July festivities.

But of all the holidays traditionally celebrated by American Protestants, my favorite was Halloween.

That’s a little surprising to me now, because when I try to come up with costumes to wear to Halloween parties, or just to answer the door to trick-or-treaters, I usually come up empty. I don’t have a lot of self-adornment skills or creativity. I also puzzle over how any given costume idea might interact with my various highly visible disability accouterments. During this campaign season, I have thought of trying to be a scary Sarah Palin, or a Democratic donkey, or a persistent pollster. But any such persona/anima would, I fear, clash with my wheelchair, ventilator, and other devices.

Of course, I could try to blend my equipment into a more technologically-themed costume. I could be Star Trek: Voyager‘s Seven of Nine (minus the spectacular physique), or Darth Vader (without the light saber — but my nephews would never let me get away with that).

I could emulate the appearance of a famous disabled person; I’m just not sure I have the panache to pull off Franklin D. Roosevelt. I know I don’t have the dashing masculine charm of Christopher Reeve. (Celebrity women in wheelchairs seem to be few and far between. Annette Funicello, Barbara Jordan, and most others departed the public eye after becoming disabled, so they lack the easy recognizability of a good costume.)

Things were much simpler when I was young. As a child, I never (that I can remember) worried about my disability’s effect on my costume. That’s probably because my Mom didn’t worry about it. She had a creative imagination, and the craft and sewing skills to carry out her ideas.

One Halloween I was Snoopy, with beagle ears and a black button nose. With a few pieces of painted cardboard, my wheelchair became a rough approximation of a dog house.

Another year I was a football player, with big shoulder pads, and a Denver Broncos helmet and jersey. I guess people just drew their own conclusions about how the wheelchair fit in with that.

My favorite, most memorable costume was part of a family ensemble: Playing on our last name, my mother used brown and white felt to transform my brother into a walking Hershey chocolate bar. And around my wheelchair, she sculpted chickenwire and a large quantity of tinfoil into a Hershey kiss costume.

Parents convey their attitudes toward their children through simple acts like these. (Okay, my mother would probably take issue with the term “simple” here. Some of those costumes probably took hours, and several false starts, to achieve the desired effect.) The point is, I had the same Halloween expectations as every other kid in my neighborhood: to dress up, to take on a new identity, and to present myself at each door demanding candy.

Now I’m on the other side of that transaction, getting ready to answer my own door to trick-or-treaters. I’m still not sure what I’ll be wearing when I do that.

I wonder if we have any foil around here?

Palin Opposes Amendment 51

It didn’t take Sarah Palin long to show her true colors, and to betray those families to whom she had promised to advocate for “special needs.”

During a campaign stop in Colorado today, Palin expressed strong opposition to Amendment 51, a citizens’ initiative aiming to expand developmental disabilities services to those who are currently languishing on the state’s waiting list. That’s more than 12,000 children and adults with developmental disabilities who need support such as in-home assistance, job training, therapies, and other critical services.

These services are designed to enable developmentally disabled people to live more independently and to integrate into their communities. But the “slots” for these services are limited, a major barrier to health, opportunity, and quality of life for those who are still on the waiting list.

Why would Palin oppose such an important measure? In her speech today, she invoked the horror of TAXES! Yes, raising the necessary $186 million will require some taxation. Specifically, Amendment 51 would phase in a sales tax of two-tenths of one percent. For a $10 purchase, that’s two cents — a miniscule amount, considering the value of these services to our whole society. (Gasoline, groceries, prescription drugs, medical services and utilities would NOT be taxed under this proposal.)

But that’s too much tax for Palin’s taste! Instead, Palin says we should fund these services by “prioritizing the dollars that are already there in government.” Does she know something that we don’t know? There is a big pot of cash sitting around in the state coffers, just waiting to be “prioritized”?

To read more about Palin’s opposition to Amendment 51, go to
http://www.9news.com/news/article.aspx?storyid=102301&catid=188

To learn more about the importance of Amendment 51, go to
http://endcoloradowaitlist.org/

Why I Support Obama

Election Day is now just a couple of weeks away and, in fact, some people are already voting, either by mail or at early voting locations. I’ve been thinking that I should write a post directly addressing the disability community, i.e. people with disabilities and our family members, friends, and allies. (Or maybe I should define “disability community” more broadly, to mean anyone who has — or will someday have — a physical or mental impairment, or a loved one who does. By that measure, we could be a truly decisive voting bloc!)

Polls show that somewhere around six percent of voters are still undecided, and I know that at least some of those will ultimately make their choices based at least partly on issues related to disability. It appears that the candidates, this time around, are somewhat aware of this constituency.

Early in his campaign, Obama began recruiting knowledgeable disability policy advisers, developing a coherent disability policy agenda, and reaching out to voters with disabilities. The clarity and thoroughness of his “Disability Plan” attest to the close attention Obama and his team have been paying to disability issues. For more information about Obama’s position on disability issues, go to http://www.barackobama.com/pdf/DisabilityPlanFactSheet.pdf?.

For his part, John McCain appointed a running mate who claims to have a special affinity with families of “special needs” children, by virtue of having a child with Down syndrome. (Though as a friend of mine recently pointed out, Trig Palin really isn’t a “special needs” child yet — he’s a little baby, with pretty much the same needs as every baby. Sarah Palin has yet to face the kinds of educational, employment, and support concerns that confront the families of children and adults with developmental disabilities.)

For the record, I’m strongly supporting Barack Obama. I have several reasons, some connected to disability advocacy, and some to other concerns. In no particular order, here are the stances and qualities I most admire in this candidate:

  • He seems to get disability. By that I mean that he appears to understand disability, not simply as a private family matter, but as a broader concern involving funding for educational and social programs, and recognition and protection of our civil and human rights. While Palin talks about being “a friend” to special needs families, Obama talks about fully funding IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, so that public schools will have the resources they need to educate students with disabilities appropriately, alongside their nondisabled peers whenever possible. While Palin and McCain highlight her new son as evidence of her “family values,” Obama vows to invest in early intervention and developmental assistance to equip disabled kids for future success.
  • He sees beyond US borders, recognizing global connections. In the disability context, this means he will urge the United States Senate to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I have been rooting for ratification since 2004, when I had the opportunity to witness and report on the early process of drafting the treaty at the UN. We are, in fact, a worldwide community, and Obama knows this.
  • He believes in providing needed support services to people with disabilities in their homes and communities, rather than forcing them into institutions. Obama’s commitment to this issue is not just hypothetical; he is a Senate co-sponsor of the Community Choice Act, which would expand community-based care throughout the nation. He also supports the Fair Home Health Care Act, in order to improve home care jobs, making it easier to recruit and retain high-quality workers.
  • He understands the original intent of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Obama objects to the way conservative courts have narrowed definitions of disability, and favored employers against plaintiffs in discrimination cases. One of his most lasting legacies may be the appointments he will make at all levels of the judiciary, including the US Supreme Court. He says he “will appoint judges and justices who respect Congress’ role as a co-equal, democratically elected branch of government and who exhibit empathy with what it means to be an American with a disability.”
  • He’s a good writer. I recommend Obama’s book, Dreams of My Father, as an enlightening and literary memoir. What, that’s not a good reason to vote for someone for president? Well maybe it’s not sufficient in and of itself. But the ability to construct a graceful sentence, to tell genuine and compelling stories, to narrate a world in which personal events and insights connect to historical precedents — these are valuable, transferable skills, skills which we have not seen in the White House for a while.

You may agree with my reasons for supporting Obama, and/or you may have reasons of your own. Or you may even disagree, and have found some reasons to vote for McCain-Palin or for one of the third-party candidates. Either way, now is the time to exercise — to demand — your right as a citizen to participate in our democracy. So, no excuses — VOTE!

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Roxborough Park Hike, October 8, 2008

One footstep at a time I trudge the trail, only my steps are not footsteps but just as frequent decisions about where to place a wheel, at what angle; small changes of direction, planning ahead how best to keep moving, keep from going wrong. I think, Is this how other hikers hike? Maybe not regular walkers; their accustomed movements, one in front of another, come so naturally that they become unconscious. But when they take on tougher trails, trails involving variable terrain, or climbing, or winding, then they have to think about it. They examine the earth in front of them, assess its angles, guess at its texture — solid, ready to take weight, or sandy and prone to give way; slick, or rough enough to welcome foothold.

My own scrutiny of the trail involves different factors. I strategize how I might maximize the power reeling from my rear wheels, while keeping my front wheels from catching a rut or a rock that may jerk me off course. I compare the approaching waves, dips, slopes, and ridges with the shape of my wheelchair, plan how to steer around or over the hazards. My tactical considerations may be different from a nondisabled hiker’s, but I think we are both looking for the same kinds of challenges, the same pleasures.

The pleasures abound. All around me on this land that is part high desert, part lush creekbed, the miracles of autumn blaze like a newly-opened vein of gold. Walls of scrub oak, transitioning from green, through yellow, to brown, border my hike for a while. Then a view suddenly opens: broad weedy meadow, rust-red rock formations jutting skyward in parallel angles. Beyond that, mountains of granite and pine catch the bending sun.

And around one corner, an unexpected treasure: A clump of rabbit brush, heavy with yellow blossoms, each flower hosting butterflies who land, suck, clench and then spread their lovely black and orange wings. At least a dozen butterflies have chosen this bush for their banquet. Bees share the feast, tumbling and climbing over the blooms. It’s like a living, breathing crown of jewels.

I start moving forward again, after stopping to revel for a while in front of that burst of color and movement. I take in all the rich scenery, near and far, from the tiniest purple wildflower to the Rocky Mountain range miles away. The pleasures of this lake are not simply visual, however. I’m enjoying a physical rush which, again, I wonder if able-bodied hikers also experience. On this unpaved, bumpy dirt trail, my wheelchair and my body both navigate and absorb the earth’s curves. Even as I plan the best approach to an upcoming swale, the right speed and angle, when it arrives I must give myself over to it, feel it rise and fall me. Every pebble, every patch of gravel, every ridged and slanting stretch of trail brings its own vibrational tune, and these I take into my body as if learning a sacred song by heart.