No April Fool’s Joke

Your email does not lie.

I have indeed resurrected my blog; it’s no April Fool’s joke. It’s been a year since my last post when I stated that I was only going to post a monthly blog due to my new role in my personal life as foster mother to a baby boy. What was I thinking? Time management skills takes on a whole new dimension when one is responsible for helping a little life unfold.

So I had to let the blog be put on hold while I did something I feel is very important for people of all abilities to do – LIVE LIFE. In my case living life right now includes changing diapers, playing with musical toys, reading story books, and just loving this new role of mine, which has always been one of my dreams. Years ago I realized the balance in my writing was with taking breaks to live life, fulfill dreams, and have fun. This allowed my writing to become so much more rich and reflective.

There is another significant reason for the blog being on hold. Drumroll, please…

My book, Firewalk: Embracing Different Abilities, about living life with a disability and taking risks to fulfill dreams, was published in November by Balboa Press. You may check it out at www.facebook.com/pages/Kathy-OConnell/536711073019475. Working on the final edits and various details with the publisher consumed much of my time last year. In a nutshell, Firewalk is about the triumphs and struggles of taking risks to live life fully and fulfill dreams when living with a disability.

Here’s a teaser for you all from the back of the book:

When Kathy O’Connell left for a professional training in Mexico, she had no idea
that it would involve walking on a bed of hot coals. She also did not realize it
would give her the perfect metaphor for what she had been doing for decades—
living life, taking risks, and facing fear — all with cerebral palsy. The metaphor
of a firewalk represents the fear, as well as the vitality, from living life while
facing adversity.

If you would like to order a copy of my book, please contact me.

Lastly, what has also been keeping me busy is in May, I’ll be launching a new website, with a whole new look to the blog. This has been possible with the help of my very talented and dear friend, Christopher Casey at . The new website, Radiantabilities.com, will have videos, the latest events information, and an online store. Look for it’s launch announcement soon!

So while I have been quiet on the blog front, things have been busy behind the scene.

Posted in Firewalk: Embracing Different Abilities, LIVE your life | Leave a comment

Born This Way

I’m back!  In mid-January, I took a sudden leave of absence from posting on my blog due to stepping into a new role in my personal life as foster parent to a beautiful baby boy.  Although I could write posts upon posts about this wonderful experience, I will just say for now it has brought me a profound sense of joy, like no other.  My blogs will be just monthly for a while as I have been working on this current one for the past several weeks….a few spare moments at a time!

What I am actually going to talk about is….deep breath….Lady Gaga….oh, I know….I cannot believe it either, but hear me out.  I will begin with my Gaga disclaimer.  I do not tend to follow celebrities in general and I am sure at least one of my nieces will be surprised that I even know who Lady Gaga is.  Like many others, I have pretty much judgmentally dismissed Lady Gaga as a “fly by night, flash in the pan” celebrity.  That’s harsh, I know, but c’mon, she wore a meat dress to an awards ceremony.  Being a vegetarian, I am grateful I never saw the actual dress!

Then Lady Gaga did something recently that got my attention in a positive way.  She launched the Born This Way Foundation.  Here is the description of it from their website:

The Born This Way Foundation was founded in 2011 to foster a more accepting society, where differences are embraced and individuality is celebrated. The Foundation is dedicated to creating a safe community that helps connect young people with the skills and opportunities they need to build a braver, kinder world.

We believe that everyone has the right to feel safe, to be empowered and to make a difference in the world. Together, we will move towards acceptance, bravery and love.

Wait a minute….that’s what I focus on with my work in teaching people about embracing disabilities.  Disabilities are differences to be embraced and celebrated.  The more people embrace and celebrate disabilities, the more the world becomes braver and kinder.  That has at least been my experience. There is much truth in a person feeling safe enough to become empowered and then make a difference in the world.  But in order for that sense of safety to happen, a foundation of acceptance – both within the person and others – has to occur.  Differences have to be seen as an integral part of who someone is for the world to receive all the lessons they offer.  I think Lady Gaga’s foundation may have some great insight to what  is the cornerstone of personal empowerment – celebrating what’s different, being confident in that difference, and then showing it to the world.

It was the name of the foundation that really caught my attention.  Born this way.  Born this way.    Takes me right back to my childhood and my parents teaching me to respond to comments and even laughter about the way I walk and talk, by explaining not in a defensive way, but in a matter-of-fact manner, that I was born  this way.  Born this way, with cerebral palsy, with a speech affect, with a significant gait in my walk.  Born this way.  This is who I am and this is how I was created.  My differences make up who I am.

By teaching me to respond this way, my parents laid the groundwork for my own acceptance of my disability.  I was born this way.  This is who I am.  As an adult, young children would innocently ask, “Why do you walk funny?”  Without pausing, I automatically respond, “I was born this way.”  Depending on the age of the child, this answer either elicits further questions (which becomes a great teachable moment) or a simple acceptance of the facts – oh, okay, this is part of who you are.

I look forward to the day when everyone, not just young children, see being “born this way” as a wonderfully diverse aspect of life and not something to be feared or ridiculed.  Thanks, Lady Gaga!

Posted in How Others React, LIVE your life | 3 Comments

Brightness Through the Darkness

While I cannot put my hands on it at the moment, one of my favorite quotes from Oprah Winfrey goes along the lines of – When I look into the future, there is so much brightness, I can hardly stand it.

It is the eternal optimist in me who loves this quote, but I believe we all have that human tendency to hope that the future is bright and shiny for us.  I thought this would be a good topic for the New Year.  We seem to have a cultural thought pattern of “things being better in the New Year” that gets perpetuated each January.  I have always chuckled inwardly at this as a Northeasterner and thought, “C’mon, people!  It’s January!  We’re heading into our stormiest months and you think things will get better?!”

I do, however, get the appeal of a fresh start and a bright future, of putting past struggles behind and moving forward.  I know one of my most successful coping mechanisms for living with a disability is to believe my life will always be improving.  That’s not at all to mean that my life was so miserable at any point that it could only improve; it means I have always been filled with hope that good things will continue to happen in my life and as I go about fulfilling my life, I will only become happier.  So all the brightness Oprah sees, I resonate with.

Ironically, an important lesson I have learned that has only intensified the brightness is being able to embrace the darker, more difficult times.  Understanding that challenges, especially when one lives with a disability, are a natural part of life.  This has helped me to stop resisting or denying them when I see them on their way.  Not that I joyfully welcome them in either….  It is just that I understand more that darker times actually adds to the brightness we experience.

Here an involved example from my own life that I’ll try to consolidate into a couple sentences.  I was single for a good many years of my adult life.  For several of those years, I did not even date.  I was struggling with – what I thought – was wondering if men would be able to see beyond my disability.  It turns out I was really wrestling with my own self-consciousness about the impact CP would have on my intimate relationships.  I went through some pretty dark times of doubting myself and denying my desire for a relationship.  I was not the confident person I am today.

Over time, I became sick of feeling that way.  I began to address my lack of confidence in this area and (surprise, surprise) discovered I had to give myself the confidence I needed before another person could come into my life and do so.  I had to spend some time looking at my darker thoughts and feelings that blocked the potential brightness of a  loving relationship.  Going through all this certainly helped put me on the path toward meeting my husband and having the loving relationship I now have.  Today my days have a brightness to them that has been tweaked by those darker times.

In this New Year, I do wish you all the brightness you can stand and  beyond.  More importantly, though, may you remember in those dark times that will come this year, how the darkness ultimately strengthens you and brightens the future all the more.  Shine on!

Posted in Lessons Learned | 6 Comments

Wrapped with Love (and a little frustration)

Despite being up way too late all week with holiday preparations and feeling slightly stressed about getting it all done, I love the holidays!  To me it’s about all my favorite things – family, friends, food, and most importantly, the gift of love and light in these darkest of days.  I am a person who is most fed by my relationships with others.  I just love time spent with those I love and care for and the holidays are all about that for me.  It truly feels my soul, while all the irresistible Christmas cookies feeds my body.  I have been so happy this holidays season, even in the midst of trying to check off my endless “to do” list…..except for one thing…

The wrapping!  Ugh, the wrapping!  I just have to say it – I HATE WRAPPING PRESENTS!  Clearly, whoever invented wrapping did not have cerebral palsy or fine motor issues.  I always procrastinate on this task.  Everything about it frustrates me to no end.  Let’s begin with cutting the paper.  You know those fancy craft scissors they have now that cut a jagged edge in the paper?  Don’t need that with CP; muscle spasms do it for you!  The easiest part of wrapping is the part where you just take the long sides and tape them to the box.  However, I am usually either too short or too long because I became so frustrated with cutting the paper.  I usually end up ditching the scissors and tearing the paper.

Then come the ends of the package.  Oh, how I loathe those ends!  I can never fold them nice and neat like my mother taught me to do.  I can never fold two sides the same.   I end up using 800 pieces of tape to get the end to stay down.  Then there’s somehow still a bulge of wrapping paper on the ends.  I assure you, kindergarteners could probably put me to shame with their wrapping skills.

The other night as I began my wrapping, in no time I was struggling with an end and pieces of tape.  My husband walked in the room as I exclaimed my obvious detest for wrapping.  He walked up to me, gently taking the present and the tape, and saying in an understanding voice, “I know you do [hate this].”  I then smiled and admitted to him I cut myself a great deal of slack when it comes to being concerned about how the present looks.  I said something along the lines of  figuring that people understand wrapping is not a forte when one has CP.

That’s the lesson in all this for me – trusting that beyond my not so pretty packages (and believe me, they aren’t pretty!), people see the effort made and understand the love in the effort.  Isn’t that what we all hope for?  In the messiness of life and the challenges it brings, when we strive for our best, but miss our mark, and when we’re doing whatever our personal best is at the moment, don’t we hope most of all that others see the love in our attempts?  And isn’t that one of the many lessons of the season?  Beyond the frantic pace and spending, may we remember the love that each of us brings is what we really need.

May all your gifts be wrapped with love this season, even if there’s a little frustration thrown in there.  Happy holidays!

Posted in All We Need is Love | 10 Comments

The Gift of Being Alive

Thanksgiving weekend is probably my most favorite weekend of the year.  Yes, I love the food, seeing my family, and the four day weekend, but I also love the true meaning behind the weekend.  Being grateful, pausing in the midst of our busy lives and those silly Black Friday sales to give thanks for the abundance and blessings that come our way.  This past year as I reflect more and more on the idea of helping people fully live life with a disability, I keep coming back to the notion of how incredible it is just to be alive.  For me, I experience this when I am able to get out of my thoughts and into the present moment – walking on fallen leaves, laughing with a friend, having dinner with my husband.  These simple things can bring so much joy for being alive and able to experience these treasures.

For years now I have been working with a man who acquired a brain injury in his fifties, which left him with very impaired vision, severe short-term memory loss, and in a wheelchair.  He has been one of the sweetest people I have work with.  His functional limitations prevent him from doing most of the activities he enjoyed prior to his injury.  Life has significantly changed for him.  He lives away from his family to get the care he requires.  He can no longer work.  Because of his memory loss, the days blend together.  Still, nearly every week when I see him and ask how he is doing, he says in an upbeat voice, “I’m alive.”

I’m alive.  I am living this life.  Life itself is good, no matter what.   This is what this gentleman has taught me.  When we talk seriously about the tremendous adjustment he has had to deal with, he will typically say at some point, “Well, I am glad to just be alive.”  Then with a twinkle in his eye, he will say, “It’s a long time dead, you know.”  It certainly is.

I recently heard an interview with the great Tony Bennett, who is still going strong at the age of 85.  He recorded a duet with Amy Winehouse shortly before her untimely and tragic death this past summer at the very young age of 27.  When the interviewer asked him about his reaction to her death, Mr. Bennett lamented  what a shame it was that Ms. Winehouse was so troubled by her addiction that it was difficult for her to see what a blessing it was to just be alive.

Despite this sad reflection, I felt inspired by Mr. Bennett’s words.  It is such a gift to be alive, to be given whatever hardship we are handed in life, and have the opportunity each day to figure out the mystery of finding the joy and beauty in life through our challenges and sorrows.  It is something that emboldens me, rather than discourages me.  It is also what underlines my passion to help others with disabilities lead full, joyful lives.  Yes, there is certainly much heartache involved with living a disability, but being alive, having life itself, is such a precious gift.  The struggle of living a disability should never overshadow that sacred realization.

In the next few weeks, as we become immersed in the holiday season – a trying time for some, I wish you all moments of feeling the gift of being alive.

Posted in LIVE your life | 3 Comments

Compliment or Condescension?

We are having a beautiful autumn here in Upstate New York, with surprisingly more sunny days than we are accustomed to by mid-November.  I have been taking advantage of these days by, of course, taking many walks.  Throughout the fall, I enjoy walking the trail around a lake near my house.  The trail goes completely around the lake and I love watching the brilliant turn of color in the leaves week after week.  The trail is about two miles long and I can walk it in just under an hour.  The nature trail is full of roots and rocks imbedded in the path so I have to be conscious of picking up my feet as to not trip on one of them and land on my knees.  I still usually take a fall at least once a year, no matter how careful I am.  I had my 2011 fall last week.  I was happy I had gone over a year without a fall.

It seems my walks recently are providing me some good material for these posts.  Just last week I was taking a little detour to an adjoining lake that one can get to on the trail.  It was a little after 4pm and I was just planning to take a few minutes to walk near the other lake.  As I was trekking up the hill to the other lake, a couple passed me going in the opposite direction.  The woman said, in a friendly, but slightly anxious way, “Don’t forget it will get dark earlier tonight.”  We had just changed the clocks back the night before, so this would have been the first evening of darkness at 5pm.  So was it just a friendly reminder?  Perhaps.  However, I cannot imagine the woman was saying it to everyone she passed on a day filled with people walking the trail.

Consequently, I begin to ponder….did she say that specifically to me because she sees I have a disability and assumes I need that reminder?  Was the underlying message “You may not remember yourself and may need my help.”  I hate to think that way.  I like to always come from the premise that people are respectful by nature and can easily dismiss any inclinations to be condescending when they see my difference.  However, reality steps in from time to time and I end up rolling my eyes and sighing at the thought that some people continue to treat those of us with disabilities in deprecating ways, no matter how subtle and well-intentioned it is.

A few weeks earlier, I had a similar encounter.  An older couple came up from behind me on the trail and passed me.  Nearly everyone passes me on the trail since I am taking my time to not take a flying leap over some protrusion in the trail.  As they passed me, the woman said, “You’re doing a great job.”  I got to tell you, I hate comments like this.  I understand they come from good-hearted, well-intentioned places, but they sound so condescending to my ears.  Yes, I do put a little more effort into taking a walk than the average Joe, but that’s a reality of my life.  Everything is more effort!  BUT – and  this is the key to why I feel these comments are condescending – most of the time, it does not feel like effort to me because this is all I have ever known.

So from my perspective….I am out on a beautiful autumn Sunday, out in nature, getting exercise, walking off some dessert I couldn’t resist.  Why do I have a woman telling me I am doing a great job?  Like the previous story, is she saying this to everyone she passes?  Does she say it to the young, well-built man running laps around the lake?  No, I didn’t think so.

Then, as this couple moves ahead of me, I notice the woman, who is heavier and doesn’t appear in the best physical shape, is walking at a slower pace than most people and has a cough.  She pauses a couple times to cough.  It occurs to me that given her physical condition, she was probably doing a great job also.  There are many times when I would love to give sharp, but yet subtle responses back to people like “Why, thanks!  You’re doing a great job too,” as a way to highlight absurdity of what they just said to me.  I realized, though, in this case it might actually be true and her compliment was indeed one because of her own effort she was putting forth. This causes me to take a moment to try to see what’s going on in the other person that produces comments like this.  After all, the more I understand them, the more they will ultimately understand me.

Posted in How Others React | 6 Comments

Firewalk – Video Post

Has it really been nearly a month since my last post?  One would think that it’s  still summer!  In actuality, I have  been busy with the people I work with Traumatic Brain Injuries, providing counseling and emotional support to them.   There’s never a dull moment!

I have another video post for you all this week.  It will sound familiar for those you read my last post, My Pitch.  It’s a video version of it with a little tweaking of the story of how Firewalk: Embracing Different Abilities, came to be.  Comments and feedback are most welcome.  Happy watching!

Posted in Firewalk: Embracing Different Abilities | Leave a comment

My Pitch

Many of you know I have been working on a self-help book for the last several years entitled, Firewalk: Embracing Different Abilities. It’s been a very long process and more importantly, a labor of love.  There have been many times when I thought I don’t have the thousands of hours to work on it or that it’s too hard to get anything published today with the head-spinning changes in the industry, but this book has a life of it’s own and it’s so integral to my life, I have no choice but to give birth to it.

The labor process has not been easy, though.  It is very hard to get a literary agent today, let alone a publisher.  Now that the book is done, I am immersed in finding an agent to represent me while also exploring if self-publishing is an viable option.  It’s certainly a daunting task and I am never bored in my pursuits. One of the challenges is literary agents are bombarded on a daily basis by query letters from prospective authors.  Writers need to stand out.   I was discussing this with my wise mentor, Ann Bradney, when she suggested I do a short video for agents so they can actually see me and hear my message.  Why not?  It can’t hurt.

So allow me to run “my pitch” by you.  Any comments, suggestions, and feedback are most welcomed.

I am Kathy O’Connell and I live life embracing having cerebral palsy.

The idea of embracing my disability came to me several years ago as I was going through some intense professional trainings to become a counselor.  In one of these trainings I was invited to participate in a firewalk ceremony, actually walking on a bed of hot coals.  The purpose of this was to demonstrate how crucial our inner knowing is in guiding us through life’s challenges.  Doing the firewalk, stepping on those hot coals with my bare feet, and literally walking on my fear of doing physical activities, was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life.  I was barely aware of the intensity of the heat beneath my feet because of how incredibly alive I felt.

The epiphany I had from doing the firewalk is that living life with a disability is much like walking on a bed of hot coals – there is fear of getting hurt, and you may get burned along the way, but  you do it anyway because you want the experience of fully living life, rather than letting the fear hold you back, no matter what the hardship is.

Having lived with a disability all my life, I began to apply the concept of embracing to living life with a disability.  I have brought this insight into my work as a counselor for people with disabilities with the premise that the key to handling any difficulty in life, including a disability, is to embrace it and allow it to strengthen you, rather than placing your energies into fighting or resisting it.

When we embrace a difficulty, we allow it to work through us as a means of making us stronger, more able to fully realize our potential.  When we embrace our disability or any difference we struggle with, when we can look at all the ways our body is different, when we are able to endure all the struggles involved in the process of living with a disability, and are able to say this is who I am and I love who I am, we can then use our disability or difference as a transformative tool for growth.

Firewalk: Embracing Different Abilities is about helping people do this.  It shows how to:

* View your difference as a valuable gift, teacher, and opportunity for growth
* Move beyond hardship and the “why me” victimization
* Face fear, anger, and frustration head-on so you can access your authentic self
* Stop letting others’ attitudes and perceptions define, limit, and hurt you
* Get in touch with your sexuality and power to attract others to you
* Find your purpose and go after it with new abilities, strength, and focus

I am looking for an agent and publisher who believes in me, my book, and the power of my message. I am a dynamic public speaker who inspires people, both with and without disabilities.  I have the ability to transform how people think about disabilities.

Posted in Firewalk: Embracing Different Abilities | 4 Comments

Flip-Flops, Wine and Cerebral Palsy

Being that today is the first official day of fall, I thought I would say good bye to summer with a story about about a staple of summer wear, flip-flops.  My husband and I recently celebrated our anniversary.  We were married at a winery in the Finger Lakes Region in Upstate New York.  We celebrate our anniversary by packing a picnic, visiting some wineries for tastings, and spending the night at the inn where we were married.  Wine is one of our hobbies.  We love just visiting the various wineries and trying something new.   Let me issue a disclaimer, though.  We only do sweet, white wines.  If there was only red wine, neither of us would be wine drinkers.  I can hear all you red wine lovers groaning and calling us nothing more than sophisticated grape juice drinkers!

Onto the flip-flops…..I love to wear them in the summer and actually try to wear them well into October.  I rather be barefoot, but when I need shoes, flip-flops are the next best thing.  So I of course had them on while we were at the wineries.  By the way, in case your wondering, flip-flops do not give me the best support and I often have to be very focused on my steps so that I don’t trip while wearing them.  Some people may not think this is wise, given my affected mobility.  But I want to wear flip-flops, so I have taught myself over the years – and through some falls – how to walk in them.  I do not feel the same way about four-inch heels, though. My life is just fine without heels!

Now the wine…while I love wine and those “fu-fu” drinks served with an umbrella, I’m not really crazy about the affects of alcohol.  I already have balance and motor issues, as well as affected speech, so when that gets intensified because of something I consumed, it’s not a terribly pleasant experience for me.  And remember, I’m really just a sophisticated grape juice drinker, so it does not take much.

That brings me to the late afternoon at a winery on our anniversary trip.  The winery was located on a big hill overlooking the lake.  I got up the hill with little problem, gravity was on my side.  The good news is the climb was worth it.   Scott (my husband) and I discovered we really liked this winery.  The bad news is after sampling their sweet reisling, I faced going down the hill.  Oh no.  Wearing flip-flops, realizing my coordination is already affected from the luscious samples, and not having the advantage of gravity equaled a slightly precarious situation.  I took a couple steps and then reached for Scott’s hand.  We laughed as I came to the realization of flip-flops, wine, and cerebral palsy not being the best combination for tackling a steep hill.

We made it down the hill with no injury.  I had a momentary thought of flip-flops not being the most practical apparel for me, but it didn’t really matter. What did was I was so happy that day.  It was another experience of feeling I am living my life, enjoying the days, being with those I love, not allowing cerebral palsy to become a barrier (even in footwear).  Sometimes we just need to reach out and hold a hand to get us through those moments when our disability throws us a curve ball in the path of living life.

Posted in LIVE your life | 10 Comments

Responsibility to LIVE Your Life

This past September 11, like many Americans I reflected – more than I have in recent years –   on the horrible events of  that day ten years ago.  One of  the ways I did this was to read a column in my local newspaper, The Post Standard, entitled, “Why I Retain Hope After 9/11″ by Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, who was just blocks away from the World Trade Center when the planes hit.  As the north tower collapsed, she grabbed the hand of a stranger and ran to the Staten Island ferry, eyes shut from flying debris.  The article then talks about how Baskerville-Burrows became both fearless in her pursuit to fully LIVE life in the days after 9/11 and hopeful in our individual and collective power to strive for peace in the world.

It was a beautiful article about not having survivor’s guilt, but a survivor’s responsibility to LIVE and make the world a better place.  I capitalize LIVE to distinguish it from merely breathing and moving through life.  When I use the word LIVE (and I use it often as it is part of my company’s tagline….Embrace.  Integrate.  Radiate.  LIVE.), I refer to the ability LIVE your life as fully and with as much meaning as one can.  No regrets and no playing small.  Take advantage of this beautiful life.  Make the most  of what you can with what you have.  Always, always follow your dreams and passion.  Make a difference by offering your love and light into this sometimes dark world.

In reading, “Why I Retain Hope After 9/11,” I gained another piece of my personal puzzle and why LIVING is such a passionate pursuit of mine.  At times in my life, I have felt survivor’s guilt for not having a more severe disability, having so many educational and career opportunities, being able to drive, walk, care for myself.  It may sound silly, but having met so many others with disabilities who face such greater challenges, I would at  times feel guilty that life often felt easy for me and that I was able to do so much.  I think when one acquires a disability, even if it is at birth, it becomes one’s personal 9/11.  Life is suddenly not what one expected and there is a lot of rebuilding to do.  Some of us seem more unscathed than others.

I hated having survivor’s guilt.  First, because I felt it was condescending to assume if another had a “more severe” disability, it meant that life was harder and less joyful.  It frustrated me when people would presume this of me and now I was doing it to others.  Second, survivor’s guilt was a way of dimming my own light and ability to LIVE fully. Fortunately, it has been years since I was able to work through my survivor’s guilt to realize I could make a far better difference in the world without it.

Reading “Why I Retain Hope After 9/11,” made me realize that underneath the survivor’s guilt was a sense of responsibility to make the most of my life, to follow my dreams, to meet the challenges that were unique to me, to try to bridge the gap of further understanding disabilities, to be happy with the body and abilities I have, to LIVE life as joyfully and radiantly as possible.  I believe that’s the responsibility we all come into this world with.  Sometimes it takes a tragedy to remind us of that.  The good news is every single ordinary day we can be reminded of this if we just pause to remember what a treasure it is to LIVE life, no matter what the challenges.

Posted in LIVE your life | 4 Comments
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