Don’t Accept Me, Expect Me

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One Red Fish Surrounded By Blue Fish.

I did it once. I gave in to my disability. I was struggling in college: juggling a double major, a part-time job, a sorority, and track season was right around the corner. My schedule was a breeze when going through manic mode. But when dealing with the low side of bi-polar, the battle was uphill and the finish line looked a lot farther than the 400m sprint I was used to training for.  So I gave in.

It was the end of my 8 am class and I went to my professor. It was just a general education course and I was only a semester away from graduation. I did what I had never done for any class. I told the professor about my disability. I chalked it up for all it was worth. I explained that I was dealing with med changes and my schedule was full. None of it was really a lie.

I don’t regret telling my professor that I have bi-polar disorder, but I do regret why I told him. I was looking for a way out; a way to make the day easier. The class didn’t really matter. It was just a nuisance class I had to take to graduate. I wanted an easy A and I knew that by gaining a little sympathy it would be possible.

Just to be clear, the one perk of having a disability is to use sympathy for our advantage. But taking that one gesture toward sympathy sets us two steps back in our abilities. That day when I told the professor about my disability, I was screaming for the professor to accept me for my differences. What he really did was even better; he expected me for being the same.

It’s not difficult to spin into the acceptance trend. Short or tall, red or blue, we want people to take us how we are. But when it comes to rising up to a challenge, we can be quick to remind others of our faults and excuse ourselves from rising to the top. We are no longer expected and we sink ourselves back down to the minority that is comfortable and safe.

As we gear up for the back to school season, I want to encourage all parents and teachers to not provide students with a letter of acceptance, but with an impression of expectance. There are many times that we say as novices that “we can’t” when the fact is that “we won’t”. When we decide that we won’t do something because our disabilities hold us back, then we will never really reach our full potential.

I got an A in that class. Though I told the professor about my disability for the wrong reasons, he was gracious in letting me take my time to learn in a way that was right for me. I didn’t go to class every day, but I studied, and I felt as though I earned the A.

How We Learned Happiness

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IMG_0994While growing up in a household with two brothers with Down syndrome there has always been one comment that digs under my skin. There are some comments I can let go, like, Wow. Your life must be so difficult. Or, Bless you for your patience. Yes, these too get to me. Because I don’t feel like my brothers have made my life difficult, and patience is not my duty. When these comments arise I grin a little and brush it off like hair on my sleeve.

Above all of these statements is this: People with disabilities are always so happy. Why does this get under my skin? Because there isn’t an always for everyone and everything. See, the statements above, I can see where people might get those impressions. There are times that life is difficult. There are times that I have had to learn patience. Those times felt like happiness felt as far as the East is from the West.

2016-02-21 21.41.37When our brother died in 2006 Eric sobbed. He felt the grief of losing someone close like a normal person. But at the viewing Levi didn’t shed a tear. At the funeral, Levi didn’t clear his throat or sniffle. Neither of my brothers had joy, but they expressed the pain in far different ways.

When our brother died, I thought I had to be the strong one. When I saw our dad cry for the first time in my life, I knew that I had to step up and fight for joy again. I tried so hard to stay strong that I eventually developed depression and I was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

So what is my point? Everyone handles grief differently. Levi ignored the pain. Eric accepted the pain. I fought the pain. You might say it defines whether or not we fight, flight, or freeze in adversity. Whatever any psychological study might entail, all three of us have struggled with disabilities. All three of us have experienced less than joy. And, all three of us have conquered agony.

You see, when you say people with disabilities are always so happy, you infer that we are not able to comprehend pain. We must be happy because we don’t understand stress, adversity, or grief. Honestly, I speak for all of us that carry a disability and say that we understand those things better than those that don’t have a disability. For centuries we have been alienated, mocked, and condemned for simply living.

Maybe there is some truth to people with disabilities being happy. It’s not because we don’t understand, but because we know what it is like to feel both pain and joy. We have faced the worst, so we can conquer the best.

A New Year’s Offer

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eric and leviChristmas is a beautiful time of year. For many is brings joy. For others it can be very difficult. But nothing in life is flawless. Even grievances add to the pristine and raw splendor that Christmas brings.

For many
of us, it’s a celebration of religion or collaboration with family and friends. While these are all the most important aspects of the holiday, one of my favorite parts is the giving of gifts. Now, before you stop reading because I sound materialistic, I want you to consider this: when you are given a gift, you are expected to accept it. For a homeless man it may be a meal. For a young lady it might be an engagement ring. Maybe it’s a silly white elephant gift. Maybe it’s homemade and packed deeply with nostalgia. Whether we cherish it or re-gift it, we have a chance to say thank you to someone for showing physically that they care.

Thanksgiving gives us a chance to say that we are grateful. Christmas gives us to chance to show that we are thankful. New Years can be equally beautiful because it brings hope. On Thanksgiving we muster up something that keeps life worth living. On Christmas we might not be able to give
or receive a gift. But the New Year helps us remember to say that maybe this new year will be better.

For the New Year, we don’t give gifts. But this coming year I would like you to consider taking an offer. An offering doesn’t have to be accepted as a gift does. It gives you the chance to say no. Why? Because gifts are meant for your enjoyment. Offers on the other hand lend the idea of a duty of you.

For this New Year I want to make an offer to you to accept. Not to just accept
the offer, but accept the offer of acceptance.

I told you that Holidays are beautiful because they aren’t flawless. People are the same way. As a sister to three siblings with disabilities, as an aunt to two nephews with autism, as a woman that struggles daily with Bipolar disorder, I am an advocate that imperfection is beautiful. I can say that more times than not it’s easier to admit that with humility than with pride.

For some our differences are inevitable, for others they are controversial. But without enduring hardships, without conflict, we cannot find resolution.

For this New Year, my wish is that you will accept the offer to accept others. My resolution is to enable you to find freedom in this acceptance. This offer may not be easy to endure, but the hope that will be gained is the gift of a lifetime.

Rainy Days Present Blossoms for The Spotted Cow Coffeehouse

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drive throughIt’s a slow day at the coffee shop today. Rain is trickling against the windows. Over the past few weeks I have come to the conclusion that this coffee shop is not my dream. But I tried.

It feels a little like failure. Like jumping into a race and fading out by mile two. Am I giving up too soon? If I pass it on, will it grow into something bigger? Is it a business that was meant to grow eventually, and was it out of my hands to make that happen? These are the questions that are constantly racing through my mind, as I on the outside, admit to failure.

But I didn’t fail. I tried.

My brother Levi, who has Down syndrome, decided to take a different route. Rather than work for me at the coffee shop, he decided to work at Frisches. He absolutely loved the job. He felt a pride in working in a normal place. All he really dreams of is being considered normal. But after one and a half months, the restaurant let him go. He was heartbroken. Not because he lost his paycheck, but because he didn’t measure up.

I can’t blame Frisches. Being a business owner, I understand the struggles of trying to run an efficient business while also surviving the ever-increasing minimum wage. It’s a battle to survive and when you try to develop your combat team, you want the fastest, the smartest, the most creative. Simply, businesses want a dynamically engineered labor force, and we’re stuck with, humans. We all fail. We make mistakes. There is not a perfect person out there, though some often seem to come close.

I opened the Spotted Cow Coffeehouse with people in mind. I didn’t create the business with the idea that I would have the World’s best cup of coffee. As a team we developed a great cup of coffee. The business was built to prove something—that individuals with disabilities do have the ability to offer creativity, knowledge, and efficiency. They know how to offer quality service and a great product.

My workers are successful. They have helped create a valuable product, and they offer great service. They prepare a product as fast and good as any normal business. I don’t hire people with disabilities out of pity. I look at their skills and what can be built from what they have. But because I don’t hire out of pity, I cannot help everyone. There are students in the area writing The Spotted Cow as their dream job, and the business cannot hire them. There are adults with disabilities constantly walking through my door with a sparkle in their eye, hoping to get a job, and I have to turn them away. They say the sky is the limit, but reaching that limit rings as low as the clouds are on this rainy day.

I’m not giving up on the coffee shop. Because I am not a quitter. I am looking for a way to live out my dream—to fulfill the dreams of individuals with developmental disabilities. I want to advocate for these individuals to employers so that they can help these individuals fulfill their dreams. But I cannot do that while running The Spotted Cow. My business will be under new management, but I will still be the owner.

Though today seems dreary, there is always sunshine and joy after rain. It brings new beginnings for both myself and individuals with disabilities. That is a joy in which I can find a glimpse of perfection.

Employment First?

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Regarding the Employment First Mandate, which states, According to state law in Ohio, employment services for people with developmental disabilities shall be directed at community employment and all people with developmental disabilities are presumed capable of community employment.

I am an employer of a small coffee shop in Urbana, Ohio. I am the sibling of three individuals with developmental disabilities, and I currently employ six individuals with developmental disabilities.
First, not all individuals with developmental disabilities are employable. As both an employer and sibling of individuals that are not typically abled, I am rather lenient compared to most employees when it comes to implementing the abilities of these individuals. However, there are many individuals that have a disability that I will never hire. My sister, whom I love dearly, will never have a job with me. No matter what training she is given, she will never be up to the standards I need to run an efficient business. If I, a dominant advocate for these individuals, will not hire, then it should be presumed that other businesses will not take the risk either.

Second, I will not hire these individuals out of pity, nor should any business be swayed to hire an individual with a disability for their life circumstances. Many county SSA’s have hounded me and a couple vocational programs that I work with to simply give an individual a job. It is assumed that because the individual is mandated to have a job that employers will jump on this bandwagon. That is simply not true. I interview every individual, whether typically functioning or not, to see how they will fit into my business.

Third, individuals are expected to get community jobs, where they are expected to build relationships with other abled-bodied individuals. Some individuals are empowered by getting a community job. Others are very hesitant. They feel that it will be similar to their education experiences, where they were always considered at the bottom, and they have no hope that they will ever see promotion. By mandating these individuals to work with typically functioning individuals, they will not have the same opportunity to build relationships. It is as if we are saying, your other disabled peers are not good enough; you won’t get the opportunity to build a relationship with them. It is an external fight to get employers to hire these individuals, but what is the internal value for employees within the workplace?

Fourth, individuals are expected to seek jobs directly after graduation. I would like to amend that these individuals are not expected to go directly into a job, but rather vocational and day habilitation programs. These programs should not all be disregarded, but implemented as a higher education method for transitioning these individuals into the workplace.

Finding Narnia

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wallet - Copy

My brother Levi has quite the imagination. For example, he has about two-hundred figurines, (elephants, cows, power rangers, little cheap kids meal toys, you name it!) On a daily basis he will act out some sort of story with them. Sometimes there is the power ranger that has to save the poor elephant from being tortured by villains, or there is the cat and two dogs that will take their homeward bound trip across our entire front lawn.

Levi also loves his movies. He likes the action movies, The Hulk, Avengers, Fantastic Four, and Power Rangers of course. He likes the teenage dream in High School musical and Camp Rock. When Levi watches a movie, he will watch it over and over and over again. He will watch one particular movie so much that I have them all memorized just from walking in and out of the room! It’s like he studies them so he can memorize every step; so he can be completely engulfed in the story line.

One particular movie, The Chronicles of Narnia, took Levi on a special mission. My dad and Levi were picking some beans in the garden. My best friend Heather and I had just gotten done horseback riding, and mom was watering her garden. I remember our neighbor coming by to talk for a bit. But after a while, we noticed Levi was gone! He wasn’t in the yard. He wasn’t in the pool. He didn’t sneak back to his T.V. Where did he go?!

Here is a bigger glimpse of our setting. Our vegetable garden is right next to a large cornfield owned by one of our neighbors. While the rest of the family continued to search the yard, my friend Heather set foot through the cornfield to see if that was where he wandered to. Finally after about a half hour, Heather came back through the ears of corn with the adventurous Levi. “What were you thinking?!”, we asked. Levi said in a matter of fact tone, “I was looking for Asland!” (Asland is the lion in Narnia, in case you haven’t seen the movie.) He had traveled a quarter of a mile through the cornfield all the way to the tree line, seconds from venturing into the great forest of Narnia.

Though Levi had all of us in a bit of a panic, he taught me another one of his little life lessons that day. Levi may have been completely entranced in a movie, but he had one goal, finding Asland. Though everyday in our household is a bit of an adventure, I thought how often we go through the motions of life. Lucky for us Eric and Levi never leave us without a bit of spice in our lives.

You see, Levi wasn’t running away from home. He wasn’t just going on a nice stroll through the corn snake valley to the forest of coyotes. He had a goal. And he wasn’t going to stop until he achieved it. (Or until Heather set him straight back down the narrow cornfield row.) He showed me that once you have a goal in mind, nothing can keep you from working towards it.

Therefore I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating at the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. –1 Corinthians 9:26-27