special needs

The Real Restroom Dilemma

Last summer, Momsy and I attended an Arts and Crafts Fair. After bopping around from one crafter to the next, we needed a bathroom pit stop. Luckily for us, there were actual bathrooms at this fair – not a porta potty in sight. Unfortunately for me, those bathrooms were very noisy, and included my least favorite thing ever: air-powered hand dryers.

At the bathroom building, I informed Momsy that I did not, in fact, have to pee.

I lied.

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Was my bladder going to explode if the internal pressure was not released at that very moment? Probs not. But there was no way I was going into the noisy restroom.

I waited patiently outside for Momsy, watching women join the long line for the restrooms, then watching them exit after several minutes. The roar of the hand dryers, women talking, and the toilets flushing collided with the quieter sounds of the world outside as I stood baking in the bright sun, like a cookie.

Walking past me came a woman pushing another woman in a wheelchair. The woman in the wheelchair was missing her one leg below her knee. The pair were heading towards the restroom line.

Suddenly, a young volunteer working at the fair asked the woman, “are you headed to the bathrooms?

The woman in the wheelchair replied, “yes.”

The volunteer said, “oh, come this way, this the employee bathroom, but you can use it.”

The two women thanked her casually and followed her past a security gate and into another small building.

That moment resonated with me. The woman in the wheelchair was clearly disabled – anyone could see both the wheelchair and the fact that half her leg was not there. The volunteer did the right thing by trying to make life easier for her by accommodating her needs and allowing her to use a separate, less crowded bathroom.

I began to imagine if I had asked that same volunteer if I could also use the private bathroom. I envisioned myself explaining – in my awkward-while-trying-to-be-confident manner –  about my sensory processing disorder, and how the normal bathrooms were very uncomfortable – in this case, impossible – for me to use.

I could see her making that “ehhh” face, the one where she isn’t buying it, but she doesn’t want to look like an absolute idiot either. She responds with something along the lines of “well, you see, that bathroom is for employees only. I’m sorry but I don’t really work here. I’m just a volunteer, and I don’t think it would be allowed.”

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If I was a true badass of disability equality and advocacy, I might say something along the lines of, “But I noticed you allowed that other disabled woman to use that restroom. I was hoping I could also be accommodated because of my special needs.”

Next, perhaps, she would create some kind of excuse for her decision, like “I allowed that woman to use the other restroom because her wheelchair would be too big for the regular restroom.”

OrI didn’t want her to have to wait on the long line.”

Or maybe even, “She is in a wheelchair so she has a disability. You are clearly a fully-functioning person because I cannot see any visible sign of a problem. So you cannot use the other bathroom because you are a liar and you are trying to mooch the system. SHAME….SHAAAAAAMMEE.”

Was there a small chance that this volunteer would allow me to use the private restroom after I politely explained my situation? Of course. But that small chance was probably very, very small. And for some reason, I would end up feeling guilty asking for this accommodation in the first place.

The whole moment made me think about every person with an invisible illness or disability or condition. Our lives are spent trying to make the best of a world that doesn’t seem too eager to accommodate our particular needs. Whether those needs are closer parking spaces, equal treatment in school or at work, or the need to use a different restroom when one is available.

As a teenager, I used to wear brightly colored earplugs to visually remind those around me about my condition (aside from using them for hearing protection, too). Without them, I’m certain most people would have completely forgotten about my severe sensitivity to sound and things would have been more miserable then they already were. I used to jokingly tell Momsy that I wished I was in a wheelchair because maybe then people would respect and understand my needs once they saw a visual sign of a problem. How sad is that?

Would it be tacky of me to walk around with a massive sign drapped over my shoulders, reading: PERSON WITH NEUROLOGICAL CONDITION. MAY REQUIRE SPECIAL SERVICES?

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I wish I didn’t have to feel that way, but that’s how much of our society thinks of differently-abled people, and that’s how desperate I am to make things easier.

As we left the arts and crafts fair that day, Momsy and I talked about it. I said, “What if a mother and her young, autistic son asked to use separate bathroom and were turned down, even after the mother explained her situation?” Momsy replied, “They would’ve had to use the regular restroom and the boy would’ve been very upset in there, and the mother would be frustrated and tired.”

I mumbled something like, “that’s not fair. Life sucks. Can we get ice cream?”

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And so we got ice cream, and I peed when we got home (in case you were concerned).

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The Things I Need

The following blog blerg post is short writing piece I sent to The Mighty, a website that publishes short stories that empower the human spirit, specifically, human spirits with various disabilities or special needs. Anyone can send a story to this website, so I spent quite a while writing this little number below, as well as created two illustrations to go along with it. After all, who would I be if I didn’t include an awkward illustration in my blerg posts?
To my dismay, I received an email stating that this was not going to be published on their website, but they would be happy to receive other/different stories from me in the future.
Still, I wrote from the recesses of my shoul (yes, my shoul); I spent a lot of time working on this, and it would be wrong to keep it to myself knowing that someone out there might benefit from my words.
So I’m sharing it with you, dear reader:

 

The Things I Need

I am someone who has lived with a neurological condition my entire life. At the ripe old age of twenty-four, it has become clear to me what I need from those around me, and more importantly, what I don’t need.

I have learned that people are generally very uncomfortable and rather ignorant when it comes to interaction with those of us who are dealing with any sort of brain dysfunction. Whether it be mental health problems, or autism, or epilepsy – the gray mushy blob in our skulls causes us to experience numerous struggles to which people often don’t know how to react.

This lack of awareness in the world has caused me to place a high value on the few people in my life who have shown a great depth of understanding for my unique challenges. These people are my gold. It wasn’t until recently that I wondered as to why I prized these people the way I did. My thoughts traveled to the idea that, as a person with a disability, I need certain things from people around me. But these things weren’t really things, they were intangible; they were tiny, unforgettable moments of compassion and empathy.

They were things I needed to feel.

 

A question arose in my mind. How I don’t want people to make me feel?

The answers appeared slowly, accompanied by a sinking feeling somewhere deep within my chest: burdening, weak, dramatic, pathetic, incapable, overwhelming.

I don’t need a doctor to make me feel like I’ve wasted his time. I don’t need someone to tell me to “snap out of” my depression or anxiety. I don’t need people to assume what I’m able and not able to do. I don’t need people to separate me from my condition, as if it’s an insult to be considered disabled or ill.

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Those are the things I don’t need.

 

So the question then became, how do I want people to make me feel?

The answers entered my mind quickly and randomly, in bursts, suddenly like bright fireworks against a dark sky: loved, supported, strong, independent, accepted, wanted.

I know now that the people in my life who I value like gold not only make me feel the things I do need to feel, but they erase the possibility that I could ever feel the things I don’t need to feel. Burdening, weak, dramatic, pathetic, incapable, or overwhelming; these are not options, ever.

 

I need someone to say to me, “Damn, this sucks. Let’s lay on the couch today and just talk and eat cupcakes.” I need medical professionals to treat me like a person, and not a number. I need honesty, laughter, and equal amounts optimism and pessimism (for when I don’t want to pretend to be happy and positive for five minutes, please). I need someone to hug me for no reason – and I mean, a real hug, not one of those crummy-half-pat-on-the-back-for-two-seconds hugs.

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As one of my most beloved writers, Maya Angelou, stated, “At the end of the day, people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”

 

xo Kelly

I am my disability

I have Sensory Processing Disorder. Some people don’t refer to it as a disability – I do. My SPD disables me everyday; it’s impacted my life since birth. I am not ashamed or embarrassed to say this, even if some people with SPD do not consider themselves disabled. Huzzah for those guys….but I am not them.

 

Say what you mean…or mean what you say?

About three years ago, I started to hear this new, fancy term known as people first language (also called person first language or PFL). Everyone loves abbreviations, right?

As a psychology student, this term was used all the freaking time. My professors and fellow students agreed that it was the correct way to address a person who has been given the diagnosis of a certain disability/condition (neurological or physical). I will now demonstrate, for you, at this very moment, how people first language works. OK, here I go:

Instead of saying, “that boy is autistic,” you would say, “that boy with autism.”

Instead of saying, “she’s schizophrenic,” you would say, “she has schizophrenia.”

Instead of saying, “he’s learning disabled,” you would say, “he has a learning disability.”

 

People first language is using words that put the person before the disability. It is supposed to emphasize the fact that the person in question is not defined by the nature of their disability, whatever it may be. It suggests that they are not part of their disability, rather, they are a unique individual whose personality and goals are a separate entity from their disability.

 

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In my brain, this idea doesn’t exactly sit so pleasantly. There’s a lot I don’t agree with.

(Before you begin to express your dislike of my opinion in the form of rage-filled comments, please give me the opportunity to explain my reasoning.)

We have come a long way in regard to changing the way in which our society – at least westernized society – views various illnesses and disabilities. Still, neurological conditions are far behind physical conditions when it comes to social acceptance.

People first language is often used with physical conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, spina bifida, or skin problems. But when referring to many neurological conditions, PFL is often not used: anorexic/bulimic, autistic, epileptic, dyslexic, and schizophrenic are just a few examples.

Then again, I can think of disabilities and illnesses that break this rule.

People with diabetes are often called diabetics, and I’ve never come across someone who protests this wording.

Yet, we don’t say people with cancer are cancer or cancerous.

We also don’t say that people with cerebral palsy are cerebral pals…ic?

 

Back and Forth

Do you see how confusing this is? It is such a sensitive topic, and I did a great deal of research – and a lot of pacing and stimming around the room – to formulate my opinion. For the record, I am not entirely one-sided on this issue. In fact, there are several valid points supporting PFL that I agree with. In many circumstances, people do not want their disability to be part of their identity; they believe they will be seen only as disabled and nothing more.

However, I think the direction in which people lean in this PFL or non-PFL debate depends upon their relationship with their identity as a disabled person. Even though I have SPD, I accept that I am recognized as a disabled individual by many, but that knowledge does not disable me. Being comfortable with the label “disabled” allows others to see that I am more than the limitations of my disability. I do not expect people to see me as nothing more than a disabled individual because I avoid seeing myself in that way, and people sense this.

 

Disability Identity

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve encountered the words, “I am not my disability.”    I don’t entirely agree with this statement either.

I believe the reason we are using people first language is because society is still rather ignorant about the nature of various disabilities and illnesses. When I say ignorant, I’m also including the words judgmental, fearful, unsure, and assuming. Right about now you’re probably thinking, “gee, that’s a very bold thing to say.”  Yes it is, my internet friends, yes it is.

While people diagnosed with diseases like cancer or diabetes often face stigma, it doesn’t hold a candle to the stigma faced by those with neurological diseases.  This stigma, I suspect, has very little to do with PFL. The judgment and misunderstanding that disabled people face every day is the result of lack of education and knowledge of disabilities. The attitude towards disabled people is the attitude that has existed for so long. I think it is the mindset BEHIND the language that creates stigma.

Stigma is the big, awkward elephant in the room. (He smells quite a bit, and everyone gets used to him. Still, he’s there…being an elephant in a room. Everyone’s thinking about how he needs to be addressed, but they’re not sure where to begin. I mean, he’s an elephant – you can’t exactly carry him out.)

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“But Kelly,” you say with a skeptical tone, “isn’t stigma created by not using people first language?”

Dearest reader, I understand the mind-blowing power of words. I have snuggled in bed at 3am sobbing over a single sentence in a novel, and the next morning, questioned my sanity.  But I know that no matter what words we use to describe a disability, that disability will always be thought of in the same way, unless the stigma – the mindset behind the words – is altered. Hear me when I say just because your disability creates challenges that you wish were not part of your life does not necessarily mean that it should be disconnected from you as a person. Disabilities – differences of any kind – define who we are. They shape our personalities; they establish our moral code; they form social skills and self awareness. You are who you are because you have lived disabled, and damn it, that is part of your identity – good or bad.

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We refer to people of various sexual orientations with the words gay, bisexual, asexual, etc. You don’t hear a gay person referred to as “a person with homosexuality.” Being gay is part of who a person is; it is part of their self. Even identities that do not originate biologically, such as religious affiliation, are often considered part of a person’s identity. “I am Jewish.” “I am Agnostic.” “I am Pastafarian.” (Yes, Pastafarians are part of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and yes, it is a real thing. Go google it and be amazed.)

 

Really, you guys? I mean, REALLY?

Are humans so oblivious and uneducated to believe that if we say the words “the autistic man”  that we will never assume there is a person inside that man with thoughts, feelings and dreams? But miraculously if we change the words to “the man with autism” suddenly, we can see beyond his disorder. Supporters of people first language use this as an argument. I’m going to be real blunt right now and let you all know I think this is kinda ridiculous. “A man with autism” and “the autistic man” do not make me think of two different people, nor does it make me think less or more of that person. Both phrases describe the same person, who has lived their life with this neurological problem which has shaped the person they have become. THIS, is what we need to be teaching and advocating for. 

Would you tell your transgender friend to think of their gender identity as a detached person who isn’t really them, but you know, still lives in their body and will always be part of their self? Could you IMAGINE THIS ABSURD CONVERSATION? (Replace the transgender topic with bipolar disorder, for example, in the conversation below.)

Random human 1: “I hear you’re a person with transgenderism. So you have your transgender self and your inner non-transgender self, correct?”

Random human 2: “Um, no. I am transgender. It is part of my self, and my being. I’m the same person inside with or without being transgender.” 

Random human 1: “But I’ve always thought that someone with transgenderism tries to separate themselves from their transgenderistic qualities because they want people to know that they are more than their transgenderism, considering it causes a lot of problems and can make life difficult in various ways, also – “

Random human 2: “Why would people think there wasn’t any more to me than my identity as a transgender person? You cannot seriously tell me that you believe that I am not ONE person, no matter what types of, or how many identities I give myself, and what connotations those identities have? Also, if you use the word transgenderistic again I will…I will…..meh, I need a cupcake to get over this level of crapsauce.”

(Note: transgenderistic is not a word. I made it up. You could probably tell. However, crapsauce is a word because I say it is.)

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 Bad Words Linger

I need to mention that despite all I’ve said here, there are words in every language that should never be used because they are only used in a degrading, ignorant way. Words like retard, mongol, midget, or schizo, are just a few that come to mind.

These words are only associated with negative connotations. They are tied to dehumanization, and nothing more. Bottom line: don’t be a goober – don’t say words like these.

 

How I See Myself

In my case, Sensory Processing Disorder is always referred to in PFL because, well, that’s just how it’s said.

Unless of course, you’re like me and say “I am an SPD’er!” SPD’er is a phrase that I use on this very blog, and one that I see on dozens of other websites. People refer to themselves, their children – their goofy uncle – as an SPD’er, and most people are fine with this.

Does my SPD suck fun and normalcy out of my life? Yes.

Does my SPD stomp all over my efforts to be a functioning adult at times? Yes.

Do I cry over it? Yes.

Has it carefully shaped my personality, my outlook on life, my goals, and my self-worth both positively and negatively? Yes.

Does connecting my disability and my identity – deeming my disability part of me, and part of what makes me, me – cause me pain, humiliation and discrimination? NO. NO WAY JOSE, AND JOSE B.

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I also have depression and anxiety – I am depressed and anxious. I’m not enraged when someone refers to me as depressed and anxious. It is what I am. In spite of this, the stigma that surrounds mental illness permeates my self-perception. I laugh in disbelief at myself, for I’m guilty of harboring discomfort when recognizing myself as a depressed and anxious person – even when I know that depression and anxiety are real illnesses, just like any other illness and I should not feel discomfort when identifying myself in that way. It is a battle that is entirely my own, as I know I can think of my depression and anxiety in the same way that I think of my SPD. I’m just not there yet, but I’ll get there sooner or later.

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But, this still sucks…a lot

I will not tell you that having a disability isn’t hard. I know it’s hard – and miserable, and annoying, and frustrating, and isolating, and a bazillion other things. But to end stigma, disabled people have to OWN their disability. For me, and other people with disabilities, it will only hurt us more if we continue to not embrace our identity. I think people first language can separate disabled individuals from their disability, as if we’re pretending the disability doesn’t exist. Honestly, I’d like my SPD (and depression and anxiety and other issues) to not exist, thank you very much, but that’s not an option right now. It’s stuck in my body, and there is nothing gained from me ignoring it. Instead, I treat it, fight it, and work my way around it; laugh at it, cry at it, and learn to love the body that carries it.

And by it, of course, I am referring to me, because I am my disability.

 

xo kelly

p.s. Sorry for the lack of blogging recently. Depression has me mostly non-functioning. What a jerk.

 

 

 

Marcus and the Club

I’ve come to realize that one of my greatest obstacles in life has been (and probably will continue to be) getting people to understand my sensory processing disorder. This rings true in college, the epitome of social involvement. But as you know, social-ness is not part of my expertise, as my sensory needs consistently seem to trump successful leisure activities. I have a very specific moment engraved in my memory that highlights this struggle.

This is me sitting in class at my local community college about three years ago:

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(Yes, in case you were wondering, I was the coolest person on campus…if you couldn’t tell from the illustration).

That day was unremarkable. I, along with several other students, were waiting for the arrival of our professor, who never showed up on time. During this time, most people were on their phones viewing pointless crapsauce, or chatting with their neighbor about pointless crapsauce. Meanwhile, I spent my time doing more important things:

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Suddenly, and I mean like outta freakin’ nowhere, this guy smashes his body onto my tiny desk, interrupting my wizard battle drawing.

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After I succeeded in NOT crapping myself, I realized he swiftly took the empty seat next to mine. His name was Marcus. He looked roughly similar to this:

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Marcus never talked to me up until this point, I doubt he knew my name. He normally sat on the other side of the classroom and generally made life annoying for the professor with his shenanigans. Every now and then, he was incredibly insightful during class. This was not one of those moments.

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I was all like:

WTF-face

I realized I had to, you know, respond. So I did.

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Without missing a beat, he fired right back.

“YOU SHOULD COME CLUBBIN’ TONIGHT!”

Hold up. Did I miss something? Didn’t I already address this invitation? I didn’t feel like diving into the hundreds of reasons why I didn’t want to – and probably should never – go to a club in NYC with this random guy from school.

Luckily for me, Marcus was a real charmer.

“But, sugar, you should come tonight.”

I tried politely turning down his offer.

“No thank you,” I said again.

Marcus replied, “But why don’t you want to go clubbing? I mean, I’LL BE THERE.”

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KILL ME NOW.

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It became apparent to me that I needed to give Marcus an explanation for why I couldn’t go to the club with him. I tried the simple response; nice and straight-forward.

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Marcus stared at me with silence and uncertainty.

With nothing left to lose, I began rambling on about what I’m sure was a complicated mess of crapsauce. On the bright side, it sounded great in my head.

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*pause*

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This ridiculous charade went on for several minutes. Marcus was a persistent bewb, and I was slowly losing my faith in mankind. I was beginning to worry that I would run out of ways to explain my SPD issues to him, because no matter what I said or how I said it, Marcus didn’t grasp the concept of me being physically unable to go clubbing…whatever the heck that means.

Just when I thought it was nearly over, a female classmate with very yellow hair and about ten thousand bracelets joined in the madness. Apparently, she was also going to the club, and now I had the pair of them giving me this look:

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It was at this point that I attempted to smile, because I was out of options and kinda stressed. KILL THEM WITH KINDNESS….ERR SOMETHING.

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Fortunately, since there is mercy in this cruel world, the professor FINALLY arrived. Marcus and bracelet girl stood up and returned to their seats on the other side of the classroom.

Of course, not before shouting, “YO SUGAR, I’LL PICK YOU UP TONIGHT. THEN WE’LL GO TO THE CLUB! AWWW YEAAA.”

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Moral of the story: If you get invited to “the club” or someplace similarly sensory dangerous, do a better job explaining yourself than I did. If that doesn’t work, smile intensely until you scare the person away. The latter method has rarely failed me.

 

xo kelly

Do you have a funny experience trying to explain your special needs? Share it in the comments!

 

 

 

 

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What School Is Like For The Sensory Sensitive

It’s that time of year again, SCHOOL’S STARTING, and for the sensory sensitive, you know what that means…

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That’s right. Time to scream and run for the hills.

I thought I’d make a blog post about school, because for me and many of you reading this blog, school was an awful time. This post will be about my personal experience with school, but please realize that – like most things – our disabilities and experiences run on a spectrum. This means that my experience may be vastly different from yours, even if we have the same set of problems. Still, I’m sure everyone will relate to what I’m about to say.

Now that the mumbo jumbo is over, let’s take a trip down memory lane:

Preschool was a fun and exciting adventure for me. I got to leave my mom, and go to a land of noisy, confusing, miniature idiots. Preschool went like this:

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Ma left me with the idiots, but only for a short while until she figured out that preschool just wasn’t for me. So I stayed home and focused on more important things:

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Soon enough, kindergarten arrived. Ready or not, I had to go. Well, I didn’t always go. Guess who had the award for most school absences ever? Yea, it was me. You guessed correctly, good job.

This pattern continued for like, ever.

I had my reasons….

Meanwhile on the school bus:

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The students had faded to loud, swirly blobs that encompassed all my hatred of school bus traveling.

Meanwhile, in the classroom:

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Sometimes, I became desperate and mentally deranged. Things got violent, sort of:

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(Ok so, that last bit never happened. But you get the point… no pun intended).

Meanwhile, in the cafeteria:

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Then middle school rolled along, and hey, it sucked too! Especially in 7th/8th grade, where my sensory sensitivities escalated for some reason. I still don’t know why that happened, I can only speculate what happened in my brain:

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In middle school, I was diagnosed with Hyperacusis, which is the inability to tolerate normal sounds. When I say “normal,” I’m referring to the sound of someone’s voice, or the sound of a car/bus passing, or the sound of a chair being pushed under a desk.

My other senses were heightened as well – just as they always were – but my noise intolerance dominated my life. It was around this time that I turned to drawing as a source of coping.

In high school, life suckage reached an all time high. The expectation of me getting through the day was flawed and destined for failure.

The idiots from preschool were basically the same:

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I began to think things:

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There was forced learning collaboration with students I’d wish to avoid at all costs:

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There was also lockers slamming, constant switching of classes, 7+ hours of constant sensory bombardment, and the expectation to perform academically, socially, etc.  Also…FIRE DRILLS. I’m lucky to have survived, honestly.

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Looking back at my time in school, I see a blurry mess of anxiety, stress, homework, noise, and tiny moments of joy. I know the same can be said for everyone living with sensory sensitivities or full-blown SPD. Luckily, times are changing and society is becoming more aware and more tolerant of our unique set of circumstances and needs. Who knows, maybe one day I will start the first SPD Academy, and school will be a freakin’ great time for everyone.

xo kelly