Why the Gayest Year Can Help People with Disabilities

This issue has been rolling around in my head for sometime now. I have been watching and listening to the news reports, legal decisions, and most importantly, people’s views and attitudes toward gay rights. It’s definitely changing. Gay marriage and domestic partnership are being both recognized and legalized in more states. Children are more easily adopted by same sex couples. It seems like the views that prohibited these rights for gays are either weakening or hopefully, reflect an understanding more of the importance of accepting people just as they are.

In December I heard a wonderful end-of-the-year summary of 2013′s progress on the changing attitudes of gay rights. National Public Radio’s Ari Shapiro summarized the legislative and attitudinal changes sweeping through the country in the last year. From state legislatures to Congress and even to the Supreme Court, same sex rights are being recognized and finally acknowledged as basic, deserving rights.

This reflects a growing societal acceptance of gay people. One that is so long overdue. How could one of the most developed countries, as we are, ever have a hard time embracing love between two people? I, as you may have guessed, come from the school of thought, that believes being gay is an inherent part of one’s self. After all, can you explain why you’re heterosexual or homosexual? I can’t; I just know I am heterosexual.

I was in a meeting last spring discussing the challenges that people with disabilities continue to face in regards to trying to help the general public become increasingly more accepting and embracing of people with various abilities. I mentioned that I thought that we could learn a great deal from the LBGT community and the gay rights movement. I believe the key of their growing societal and legislative progress has to do, at the very core, with self-acceptance and really claiming, “This is who I am.”

In the NPR piece the reporter captures this sentiment by quoting Harvey Milk. Milk was the first openly gay person to be elected to office in California. He is recognized as an early leader of the gay rights movement, perhaps because of this philosophy:

The most important thing gay people can do is come out because once you know us, you don’t hate us.

I believe the same principle is so very true for people with disabilities. While many disabilities force us to “come out” because they are so evident, claiming one’s disability as an integral part of who one is and having a sense of pride (think Gay Pride) can go a long way in people getting to know us and seeing our value.

Throughout my life one of the most common pieces of feedback I receive from people about my disability is because I am so comfortable with it being part of who I am, that allows others to feel the same. Like gay people, once we stop resisting such an integral part of who we are and what makes us different, we can proudly claim how we don’t fit into that elusive “norm,” giving others the encouragement to accept and embrace us as we are.

There’s a lot to learn here. Keep watching the gay rights movement. Maybe some year we’ll have the Most Differently Abled Year.

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Don’t Fall….Gee, Thanks for the Reminder

I have had a particular idea for a blog rolling around my head for a while now.  It needs a bit research and time for me to put my thoughts down. My family and I are in the midst of moving this week, so unfortunately time is a hot commodity.

Thankfully, the Universe delivered some good, lighthearted material for a post the other day. The theme of this “lighthearted” substance may sound like an oxymoron – projected anxiety. You know when someone sees you and begins assigning a worry or a fear they have onto you. I have found this happens from time to time when someone makes instant assumptions about because of how I walk.

In their eyes, I appear unsteady due to my gait and that causes immediate concern in the other person.  In general, I believe people have a difficult time being with their concern and even a harder time labeling it anxiety. If people were able to do this more, they would in a better position to catch themselves and project far less anxiety onto others.

Here’s my brief encounter to illustrate my point. Over the weekend, I got a haircut at a salon I’ve been going to for years. The salon¹s in an old house so there¹s a couple steps leading to the front door.  As I’m paying my hairdresser (do they still call them that?), her next customer comes it. I say goodbye and walk to the door.

As I do, the Next Customer follows me. My hairdresser, who has a knack for totally getting people for wherever they are, says to Next Customer, “Did  you forget something?” Next Customer replies, “No, I am going to help her with the door.”

Yes, a nice gesture, but I didn¹t really the help, nor did I ask for it. Plus, her holding the door made my exit a bit more challenging because I was not able to hold onto the door as I stepped down. It just threw off what is easy for me.

Then as I am descending the steps, Next Customer calls after me, “Don’t fall.”

I know it probably doesn’t  sound like this after  reading this post, but I¹m actually not a sarcastic person by nature. I’m not as quick with comebacks as I¹d like to be. What I would have loved to say is, “Thanks for the reminder. Otherwise I would have planted my face on the cement.”

Don’t fall. Like I’m trying to? Do people think before uttering these words?  No need to answer that one. Obviously not.  I¹m usually pretty tolerant of other people¹s comments, especially when I know the person is trying to be but has their own anxiety thrown in the mix.

Statements like “Don’t fall,” especially when the person knows nothing about me except that I have a disability is just condescending.  Would that woman have said the same to someone without a disability? I don¹t think so.

I will end my rant with a plea for all people who feel uncomfortable with anyone¹s difference, check in with yourself first – is what you¹re about to say coming from a valid place or one of projected anxiety? If it’s the latter, take a deep breath, count to 10, and people see themselves to the door.


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Firewalk: The Trailer

While I don’t get to the  movies much these days, I do love going to the movies. One of my favorite parts of the whole “going to the movies” experience is watching the trailers before the movie.  While chances are I may never get to actually watch the upcoming movies, I love seeing the previews. But it’s more than that. As a lover of stories, I am so intrigued by how trailers tell a story in just a few short minutes. Many trailers  touch me by how they capture the essence of a story.

Hopefully, you will have that response when you take a look at the book trailer for  Firewalk: Embracing Different Abilities - fresh off the press, so to speak.  Yes, a book trailer, one of the newest ways to market a book. In this age in which we have become so visually-respondent, book publishers have decided to create visual images  to entice readers. So take a look, as always let me know of any feedback, and feel free to share!

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Keeping Up

I will be kicking off the new school year here in New York with an inservice training to the teachers and staff of Enable’s preschool program.  I was requested to do my presentation on Embrace, Integrate, Radiate, Live.  Here’s the description of the training from my website:

Kathy intertwines the core philosophy of her practice into a powerful presentation for individuals, families, and service providers. The concept of embracing one’s disability as a key component in the process of acceptance is explored, along with steps for integrating disability into self-concept. People are then encouraged to look at how they can radiate one’s gifts, talents, and abilities to the world. The presentation concludes with a discussion of how these important actions lead to living life as fully as you can.

When I created this training, I honestly did not have three and four-year olds in mind.  The thing I love about giving presentations and training to various audiences is that I am challenged to tailor each one I do to the needs of the audience. So I called the preschool director to get a feel for some of the issues the kids are facing.

The major issues he said are the struggle with  being different and keeping
up with their peers. A-ha! I was instantly taken back to being a kid -
trying to keep up with kids on the playground, with school assignments
because everyone just wrote so much darn faster than me, and getting out my
questions and stories as others patiently listened to me and tried to
understand me.

Fast forward to high school years, but before any of us could drive, and I
was forever trying to walk as fast as I could to keep up with my group of
friends as we walked from the movie theater to the pizza joint.  I was
always trying to keep up with others.

Looking back, I think the trap I fell into as a kid was equating “keeping
up” with “being good enough.”  There’s a fine line there and when we’re
constantly measuring ourselves against others, we cross the line.  We then
mistakenly believe that going at a slower pace and doing things differently
just doesn’t measure up. But who’s rules are those and why are we so quick
to accept them as truth?

Well for kids, it’s because they are so impressionable, especially at age
three and four.  That’s why they need adults in their lives who will give
them messages such as valuing the uniqueness of their pace, helping them to
focus on what their gifts are, and helping them find acceptance in whatever
their pace is.

Disability or not, don’t we all essentially move at our own pace? Think
about a major marathon, like in NYC or Boston, those thousands of runners
don’t all finish first.

Grace is bestowed on us when we can begin to accept our pace, let go of the
measuring stick, and know that whatever our speed may be, it’s good enough.
I am looking forward to helping the teachers and staff foster this belief in
the little hearts of children who have so much to offer.

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Surrendering to the Escort

Who would have ever thought that tile floors and rubbered sole shoes (my sensible mom shoes) would cause an accessibility issue?  But it happened – in the airport. I write this on the final lag of my journey home from a fantastic trip to speak at the Texas Parent to Parent Conference.

I noticed it right away. I walked through the airport doors in Syracuse and noticed it suddenly felt like I was walking on ice. I felt like I would slip at any moment. “Okay, this is probably in my head,” I told myself and kept walking. After all, I have flow and gotten myself around the busiest airports for years. However, I clearly could not walk at the same brisk pace I am accustomed to.

I kept forging ahead,  though, coaching myself like my mom taught me when she read me The Little Engine that Could over and over. “I can do this,” my inner cheerleader whispered, “I can do this.”

I continued inching along. I had planes to catch after all. Thankfully my connection involved a couple hours wait so I could carefully meander through the Detroit Airport, which seemed a lot bigger than I remembered. A few times I thought about getting a wheelchair or electric cart escort. But I can be stubborn and insist on doing things the difficult way. Baby stepping my way through the airports, I made it to Austin, thankful for the concrete once I got outside. One can’t slip on dry concrete, although I’m sure I cold figure out a way to do that too!

Less than twenty-four later I returned to the airport. It’s amazing how quickly I can forget things. I walk into the airport at my normal pace and….oh no, here we go, that sensation is back where I feel like I might fall. So I inch my way to security, thinking a little more that maybe I should ask for an escort. I find myself cheating and opening the roped off part of the security rope that creates that silly zig-zag that leads to security.

A nice security officer comes up to me and motions me to a shortcut to security, but then rethinks it. “Ma’am, could I get you an escort?” Without hesitation, I say, “That’d be great.” I realize at this point I just don’t want to forge through another day on airport floors. In the moment, as I walked so carefully through the long airport terminals, it felt very stressful to me. It took me out of the present moment and the enjoyment of my trip. I’m a person who usually actually enjoys flying.

So why not surrender to the escort? I swallowed my hard headedness and sat down in the wheelchair. The stress of worrying about getting to the gate gone, I could relax and accept the kind help of the airport staff.

Another lesson learned – stop trying to prove a point (more to myself) and enjoy the ride – literally!




Posted in Lessons Learned | 4 Comments

How Dad Taught Me to Believe in Myself

My Dad returned this year from his annual Florida vacation with a bracelet he picked out for me. Like most couples, my mother is usually the shopper and the one that selects most gifts. Once in a while, though, while accompanying Mom in the store, Dad will see an item and know that it should belong to one of his kids or grandkids.

The bracelet he gave me was pretty simple with a black band and delicate silver lettering that spelled out the word, BELIEVE. Attached to the bracelet were the following quotes:

Dreams become miracles when you believe.

Just as this bracelet has no end, there will be no end to your success if you remember that determination, not destiny, makes all the difference in life.

In all matters of consequence, never give up.

Throughout my entire life, my father has been my biggest cheerleader. In childhood, as I learned to gain control over my muscle spasms and coordinate my movements, trying to do some tasks seemed quite daunting. Dad was ALWAYS there to say confidently and calmly, “You can do  this,” when I doubted myself and thought I could not. Most notably in my memory is him teaching me to drive. Learning to drive was quite the challenge just because I had to figure out how to monitor and measure my muscles movements so I would not do things like stomp on the gas and brake pedals. The challenge in this is the way cerebral palsy affects my muscles is they often want to go from 0 to 60 (yes, I did intend for that pun!). So Dad and I spent hours in empty parking lots and back roads, with Dad in the passenger seat often stomping on the invisible brake, while I learned to control my movements to eventually become a safe driver and pass my road test.

This is just one of thousands of examples how Dad communicated to me that just because I did things differently or were harder for me, did not at all mean, I could not achieve it. In his mind, it just took a little more work.  As a child, I got the message early on from Dad that he expected a lot from me. I was the youngest of four children and he quite often had the same expectations of me as my brothers.  These expectations made me want to achieve and instilled a drive in me.

As an adult I realize what Dad really imparted in me was believing in myself and my abilities, no matter how intimidating the tasks. Dad had dreams for me to lead a successful, happy life, as all good parents do. He was ever so wise to know the core of success and happiness is believing in oneself and one’s capabilities, especially when things don’t come easy.

I often say I am the person I am today because of the parenting I had. Dad taught me how to be confident, work hard, never, ever doubt my worth, and to then receive all the good life offers.  These days I often have daily chats with my Dad at the end of the day, as I drive to daycare to pick up my little one and prepare to go home to make dinner for my family.  It’s the sweetest part of day for me. The happiness my father hears in my voice as we discuss the day’s events is something he created within me long ago. It stems from helping me to believe that dreams do become miracles.

Can’t thank you enough, Dad.

Posted in All We Need is Love, Believe in Yourself | 2 Comments

The New Look of Kathy’s Blog

I promised to deliver it in May (at least it’s still May as I write this!) and here it is….my new website and the new look of my blog – Radiant Abilities, LLC.

Thanks to my dear friend and collaborator, Chris Casey at Techtonic Media, we have a much more interactive website, complete with fabulous photos (compliments of Carol DiSalvo Photography) and videos of speaking engagements and interviews.  Graphic Designer Kevin Foresti created my new logo, which is in the background, to capture the four principles of my work – Embrace, Integrate, Radiate, LIVE.

Here’s a brief overview of the highlights. On the Home Page you will find a personal video introduction from me about the site and how I created Radiant Abilities to provide a resource for emotional healing and personal empowerment for people who live with disabilities and their families. I speak about my belief in the power of living with a disability and using it as a launching pad for transforming one’s life. At the core of my work, I believe when people embrace their disabilities as an integral part of who they are to include both challenges and  triumphs, life takes on new meaning. One becomes empowered to make choices, pursue dreams, radiate abilities, and live fully.

On the Training & Presentations page you will find out about the array of workshops and conference presentations I offer regarding living with a disability and using this process to reach for goals and pursue dreams. You can also learn about my book, Firewalk: Embracing Different Abilities, which offers readers an approach to moving through feelings of fear and victimization, which lead to embracing and appreciating their different abilities.  You can now purchase copies of Firewalk directly on the site.

Other pages include a new News and Events page, which will include both local and national events I will be participating in. A “companion page” to the News and Events is the Press Room page, complete with a downloadable press kit and documentary interviews.

Lastly, there is the Counseling page, announcing that I  am now offering sessions via Skype, and the About Kathy page to learn more about me. And of course, The Blog!  This page includes an archive of all my blog posts.

Take a look and feel free to contact me with your feedback via the Contact Form.

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How Mom Empowered Me

In your parenting relationships it (detaching) means constantly reminding yourself that your children are on their own paths and they are not going to live their lives the way you decide they should. It means guiding them, helping them to become self-reliant, and always letting them know that you unconditionally love them. . . -Dr. Wayne Dyer, You’ll See it When You Believe it.

My mother did this with me as a child and still does to this very day and it has made such a difference in my life. Mom is an expert – I think without even knowing it – at loving fully and unconditionally and then letting go so that her children could grow and take risks to become the individuals we are. While it’s always scary for a parent to let go with her child, the presence of a disability or any significant difference certainly adds layers to that fear. If a child has various daily needs, a mother worries about how those will be met, how much her child will struggle, and as every mother does, wonders will her child be happy.

My mother spent so many years worrying about these things for me. I think it has only been since I have approached. . . yes, middle age. . .and my life has become more settled, that her concerns have eased some. Like most children, I would respond to her concerns with a nonchalant, “Don’t worry, Mom.” To this, she would quip, “Don’t tell me not to worry; that’s my job.”

Well, I told her not to worry because she was giving me – on a daily basis – the single most important thing to insure happiness in my life: LOVE. All I have ever remember is being loved by my mother, profoundly and completely. My earliest memory of her is shortly before I turned two, reading books with her, talking about noses, and touching her nose. A seemingly simple interaction, but I remember feeling so safe and loved. I believed I have felt this way, either consciously or unconsciously, every day of my life because of my mother’s (and father’s, but we’ll talk about him in June) love.

It is the single, most important thing that has shaped my life. It gave me the courage to embrace living with a disability and all the struggles that accompanies it. My mother’s love taught me that I was valued. In fact, it instilled that in my core. Nothing empowers like love and a sense of value. Life is still certainly difficult, but I believe when we feel loved and valued, the challenges we face seem to be a little more surmountable and with purpose, rather than just a means to an end.

I will take a hundred more lifetimes of living with a disability, if I could keep getting the mother I have been given. I cannot say it enough, Thank you, Mom. So. . .now will you ease up on the worrying?

In July, I will be presenting at the Texas Parent to Parent Annual Conference on Empowering Your Child with a Healthy Sense of Self. A parent’s love and value on her child will certainly be the essence of my talk.

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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.

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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
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