Who Will Bring the Straws?

I need straws for drinking. I have cerebral palsy, which affects my speech and motor coordination, and it is difficult for me to maneuver cups of liquid from a table to my mouth. So I often request straws as a workshop accommodation. But at many workshops, the straws are not there. Without straws, I try to drink as elegantly as I can, hoping others don't notice my awkward movements. I probably should bring my own straws-it is really not a big deal-but I always forget. After taking some moments to shake or yawn with someone, I turn my thoughts to the connections I want to make and the work I want to do at the workshop. But later, in the arms of a beloved Co-Counselor, I still wonder who should bring the straws.

Most accommodations are not as simple as my straws and certainly not as portable. Ramps, wheelchair-accessible rooms, uncluttered pathways, brailled and large-print programs, note takers, and hearing loops allow many of us with disabilities to manage our lives without having to ask for help, but for various reasons these accommodations are not always possible. When the accommodations that facilitate our independence are not available, it becomes difficult to put our attention on other things. The struggle to achieve accessibility in the wide world is overwhelming, and we have yearned for Re-evaluation Counseling to provide a more welcoming model for us. In our disappointment and frustration, there is a powerful tendency to accuse non-disabled Co-Counselors of not thinking about or wanting us. Sometimes we dramatize these feelings. Sometimes we give up and disappear from our Communities. Accessibility becomes an issue guided by our patterns rather than our humanity.

In RC, it is possible to create a new model for working with disability issues that includes careful thinking about accessibility. I believe this will come from working together. Accessibility is a joint project, and it will happen best when disabled people have good relationships with each other and with our non-disabled peers; when we counsel each other well and discharge with our attention away from the pattern of blaming others for not treating us well.

Counseling

Long before we attempt discussions and long before we write policy, we should be counseling. It has amazed me that so many issues in Re-evaluation Counseling are discussed and so many opinions given before we have done the work on our own feelings. One or two sessions cannot possibly clean up a lifetime of oppression, and we owe it to our Communities to do the hard-core counseling before we do anything else.

It's difficult to tackle a major area of oppression and distress. It's difficult to look at where we have felt so bad for so long and take a direction of having a wonderful, rich life. And it's difficult to stick with counseling on the same distress long enough to move it out of the center of our lives.

The disability issue broke wide open for me earlier this year at a parents' workshop led by Patty Wipfler. I had been counseling for a while on how angry I was and on how I was acting out my anger in inappropriate ways towards my husband. I usually discharged well on whatever distress was apparent, but as relieved as I felt after a good cry, I also felt as if I could not grab the handle of the chronic distress that kept showing itself in various forms.

During Patty's workshop I joined a topic group on parent support groups. I talked about my difficulty in gathering parents around me. I had taught "special time" classes, and they were good, but often people would not show up and I couldn't get a class to hold together. Patty asked me what I thought the difficulty was, and I responded that it was probably my disability. She did some work with me and a non-disabled Co-Counselor, and the topic dominated the rest of the workshop. Patty and I have always had a nice relationship. As our relationship strengthened during this particular weekend, I tackled the feelings about the oppression around my disability, and my discharge began to increase in intensity. Pretty soon I was right back at my birth, crying long and hard.

Counseling on disability, something I have avoided for many of my twenty-five years in counseling, is amazing. Almost every topic I approach these days leads to how terrible I have felt about my body, my life, and people's reactions to me. The discharge is heaviest when I take directions against the distress, such as, "Every place is a safe place for me," or when I use the understatement, "It sometimes happens that someone likes somebody." What comes up are all the negative feelings I have ever felt! I used to spend sessions yelling and wrestling and blaming people for what happened to me. Now it is the yawning and deep crying over how I have portrayed myself that seem to move me forward the most. Although the distress is clearly due to the oppression and not the disability, attacking non-disabled people for their unawareness just pulls me deeper into the distress. It becomes difficult to get my attention out for more than a few minutes. I have also learned that it's important that my counselor tell me that I am really okay.

It is tremendously exciting to be doing this work! I am beginning to feel more energetic and confident, and I can hardly wait to see what the next months of discharge will bring. I have been working on disability every week for about four months and feel that I have barely begun! I would love a few hundred disabled Co-Counselors to join me in this type of clienting-to zoom in on the feelings about the oppression and stick with it for at least six months. I am sure that as we increase our own sense of belonging, we will change the world!

Relationships

Patty told me that in order to build my leadership and gather people around me, those people would have to work on disability. (A good way is to work on the first memories of meeting someone with a disability.) She also suggested that I bring together my best allies in my Community and see what they were willing to do to move the Community forward. So after the workshop I got together with my Co-Counselors for an evening of discharging about and discussing how the Community could move. They were willing to keep thinking about disability and told me I must not give up on leading the way I want to. It touched me that the five people who gathered around me liked me so much, knew me so well, and were excited about the work I was doing in my sessions around disability.

We need not wait for Co-Counselors to clean up every feeling they have about disability. As disabled Co-Counselors, we need to be in the center of Re-evaluation Counseling, no matter what. Accessibility is important because we need to be visible in classes, workshops, and gather-ins in order to be full participants in the process of re-emergence. Yet it is the nurturing and growing of our relationships that will build the most awareness of who we are and what we need.

To be in the center, I think we have to get involved in every part of Co-Counseling. Disability is not our only concern. There are so many opportunities to speak out and participate in all kinds of support and topic groups. We must share our stories and contribute our thinking on every issue. We must be interested in knowing others who are like and unlike ourselves. Non-disabled Co-Counselors want to hear all of our stories, and we need to listen to theirs. Of course accessibility will make every interaction easier, but the first step must be to make connections.

I think we need to be involved with young people, and I encourage us to attend playdays and family workshops. We need to get right in there with young people, at the point where their oppression begins to take hold, and contradict the oppression by listening to, playing with, and enjoying them. Our counseling sessions will become wild with memories of ourselves as young people with disabilities and will give us great opportunities to discharge on what happened to us at various ages. At a family workshop, in response to a comment about making sure this kind of workshop had enough people with a lot of physical strength, Chuck Esser explained that it's not the physical ability that matters, it's the quality of attention we have for each other.

If we can't get into a workshop, the leaders must be invited and encouraged to come to us, or we should be carried into the workshop. This will make a statement, and people will notice. The important thing is that we make a presence, and that presence must be one of pride! I have friends who use wheelchairs who, at some inaccessible social gatherings, have had to figure out, with many people beside them, how to get up five steps and into a meeting place. This is by no means ideal, and their friends, with whom they talk, eat, and laugh, are the ones to comment and think about changing the environment. I can practically promise that with strong and close connections to our non-disabled peers, accessibility will become an issue that everyone will be eager to resolve.

Information

Who has the responsibility for finding accessible sites and providing accessible accommodations? I think it is disabled and non-disabled Co-Counselors together. Many of us are active in disability communities and organizations and have leads for accessible meeting locations and places to get sign language interpreters or have materials brailled. I think it makes sense for us to have a conversation and a session with a workshop or class organizer and discuss what the possibilities are for providing access. Because we all have different needs, it also makes sense for the organizer to talk to the particular disabled people who may want to attend. We need to give as much information to others as we can.

We also need to think together about the financial aspect of providing accessibility. How much more might we need to charge all the participants of a class or a workshop in order to make it accessible? Can a portion of a Community's outreach funds go toward accessibility? Can people set up a donation fund specifically designed for this? I think the possibilities are many, and there are solutions we have not even dreamed of yet!

Just as we need to build good relationships with non-disabled people, so do we need to build and strengthen our relationships with each other. We need to reach out for others with different kinds of disabilities, some of whom we may feel uncomfortable with. This discomfort must not stop us from building a strong community of disabled Co-Counselors around us that will encourage and push us to use the tools of RC in our sessions and in our lives. We need to encourage each other to build wonderful lives, no matter what the present obstacles may be. Accessibility, for all of us, is surely on the way . . . and in the meantime, I will tell my non-disabled Co-Counselors where to buy the straws!

I would love to hear from other disabled Co-Counselors about your successes and how you have functioned within your RC Communities. Let's keep in touch and work together to create a dynamic and exciting place for ourselves in Re-evaluation Counseling.

Laurie Summers
Silver Spring, Maryland, USA

(Present Time No. 110, January 1998)


Last modified: 2016-08-22 02:11:22-07