Many-Issue Leadership

I just returned from leading our twelfth annual International Disability Liberation and Allies Workshop, in Hebron, Connecticut, USA. We had nearly a hundred people, many of whom have returned for all or nearly all of these years. Janet Bernault has organized the event for twelve years and has become wonderfully experienced in putting together a team of people to handle the pre-workshop and on-site disability access and transportation issues.

Our group was so beautiful! I took odd moments during the workshop just to gaze out at our gathering - quite diverse with respect to age, color, and background, with many people in wheelchairs and a few with braces and crutches. There were several hearing and visually impaired people, someone with an electronic communication device and another with her sign language interpreter, and many other people with invisible disabilities. I remember Harvey saying about fifteen years ago that a disability workshop was the least pretentious event he'd ever been to. It's still true! We have to work hard at being accepted and appreciated, yet our humanness is so apparent. I feel so lucky to have this work!

The workshop was truly international. The twelve people from Japan made a wonderful contribution. I decided to open the workshop with a demonstration with a Japanese leader on what it's like to come to the U.S. I asked her for suggestions for ways USers could be welcoming and inclusive. She was forthright and clear, and I think this helped us all to get past our shyness and intimidation at the language barriers and cultural differences.

Although the disability issues that Japanese people face are familiar to Westerners, the slight variation in cultural manifestation illuminates the oppression for all. These Japanese women have a way of showing unabashed glee in connecting with others. There were many great moments of fun and funny communication with verbal language seeming unimportant. With the Japanese translators working along with the sign language interpreter, who traveled with a lovely British deaf woman, we had a "United Nations" of language and culture. And with our range of disabilities and unique ways of moving, communicating, and connecting, it felt practically intergalactic!

I became more confident about doing demonstrations through a translator. I realized that the extra moments of waiting for the translator to speak could be used for relaxed, non-verbal connection - eye contact, facial expressions, hand-holding, and snuggling with the group's attention. I've always enjoyed having sign-language interpreters at events in the wide world, because it requires a slightly slower pace of communication, which benefits everyone.

Micheline Mason attended and brought her lively and confident thirteen-year-old daughter, Lucy, and three others from London. I asked Micheline to speak about her work with inclusion and to share her theoretical thinking about the history of disability oppression. She is so phenomenally articulate and clear in her description of how disability oppression operates. Her talk was the highlight of the workshop for many people.

This year for one of the classes I sub-divided the workshop into three constituencies in order to focus on the oppression as it hits each group uniquely. The groups were: (1) non-disabled allies, (2) people with chronic illness or injury who intend to recover, and (3) people with long-term disabilities ("disabled for good," I called us). Our beloved and extraordinary ally, Gladys Maged, took the non-disabled allies off to work on the various challenges of being allies. Gladys is pushing our allies - who include parents, spouses, friends, offspring, and siblings of disabled people, as well as people who work in disability rights and services - to organize themselves as a constituency in RC.

I took the disabled group, and we worked on identity issues using the "claim it, clean it up, and throw it out" direction. We had a powerful demonstration using the role exchange ("I'm not _____, you are") as a way to discharge internalized oppression.

Jaye Alper took on the challenge of leading the group for people with chronic illnesses. This group has yet to organize within the RC Community. It is a challenging group to lead because people with illnesses often have such difficult current life struggles, such as reduced income from not being able to work, fighting the bureaucracy of social security or welfare benefits, pain and discomfort from physical symptoms, and so on. Jaye was terrific, light, and direct. She hopes to take this issue beyond the workshop.

A young "retarded" woman named K - attended the workshop. She has Down's Syndrome. Her mom is a long-time RC leader. She took some time in the group to appreciate us for welcoming her daughter and to discharge while encouraging all of us to be bolder in reaching out to and including K - . The inclusion of people from this constituency brings up lots of feelings for people, for example, fear, aversion, over-eager helpfulness, patronization, and so forth. Micheline commented that just having K - there was an indication of great progress in RC.

Other issues we worked on included: other oppressions that overlap with disability oppression, early sexual and body memories, families and disability, and despair at fighting the oppression and how we sometimes project that despair onto RC.

I presented my perspective on how to begin to create guidelines for accommodating requests from people with needs related to allergies and the environment. Discharging on frozen needs and early sexual and body-related memories are the foundation for clarity about "meeting needs." We must remember to use the discharge process in all aspects of our relationships with each other. Sometimes with disability issues, both the Community members requesting accommodations and the allies trying to meet their needs forget to counsel with each other on their feelings and confusions and jump to judgment and decision-making before they've explored and discharged the feelings.

A personal highlight for my own re-emergence was the substantial challenge of leading a weekend workshop for a hundred people. After leading two classes, a breakfast table, and a support group, it was only Saturday afternoon, barely halfway through the weekend, and a familiar set of workshop feelings tugged at me: "This is too hard. I don't know how I can go on." Typically, I have coped with these feelings with a buck-up, grit-my-teeth posture alternating with fleeting thoughts of the workshop being over, which is, of course, not enjoying the experience in present time. In a mini-session I came up with a metaphor for the feeling - that of a marathon runner hitting "the wall." This was the stepping stone to a re-evaluation. This feeling of "I can't go on" isn't at all about present-time fatigue. It's a recording from early hurts. My guess is it's the hurts around the many surgeries I had as a child. Realizing this changed the whole experience of leading. I'm not really tired or overwhelmed by thinking and functioning at my best. I'm only up against some early distress. Now I want to lead as many weekend workshops as I can, to get past that recording.

I'm still learning how to have a workshop for myself when I lead a weekend. Over the years I've been challenging my "do-it-yourself" pattern of leading, where I push down the feelings and regard the task as a job to get done rather than as a way to connect with wonderful people. Together with my counselors I have developed the workshop support role of "Marsha's glue": someone to stick to me and remind me to feel and discharge each step of the way. Last year at this workshop, Michael Markovits upped the ante by offering to counsel me one-way during every non-leading moment of the weekend, including through the night. His persistent direction was, "Fully connected." I took full advantage of his offer. After some of his counseling I was so relaxed and unconcerned about appearances, I led the morning class in my pajamas! That much discharge had a lovely effect on my enjoyment of leading. I tossed away my written notes and just tried to notice what people needed to learn. I am pleased at my reputation as an International Liberation Reference Person who often takes time to discharge while leading, both to help me think clearly and to model bold clienting.

This year I brought with me from California my own regular (non-disabled) counselor, Jim Otis, as "ally/glue in training." Jim was great, pushing me to go against my internalized oppression as a mildly disabled and "relatively privileged" disabled girl and how that reinforces my compulsion to solitarily save disabled people and fix the world, instead of bringing everyone with me to do the work together. Jim got a lot out of hands-on interaction with severely disabled people, like helping with dressing and bathing. It is such a pleasure for me to witness my non-disabled friends recognizing that learning about disability is not an altruistic act. "Helping" someone is always a two-way interaction.

Marsha Saxton
El Cerrito, California, USA


Last modified: 2017-05-06 23:35:41-07