Personally speaking, I am concerned about our political discourse which demonized "the other." Despite the fact that I grew up with seeming advantages, I had real struggles which make me very sensitive to the characterizations I hear spouted by certain politicians every day. I am troubled by the idea that people with disabilities could ever be afraid, and it's why I am compelled to share.
Here is my story.
When I was 14-years-old, my mother called me into her bedroom to tell me that I had something called Epilepsy. My mom struggled to discuss it with me through her tears; she said the doctor told her whatever I do, not to tell anyone -- not a teacher or any friends. I was worried something had happened to her and initially did not understand the magnitude of what she was trying to explain to me in her grief. I felt so bad for her that I bought her a bunch of daisies at the local florist. Her pain was personal, couldn't be discussed and was our secret.
I soon discovered that sadly, my mother's warnings were well-founded and came on the heels of centuries of stigmas against epileptics. According to The History and Stigma of Epilepsy "In the United States, for instance, people with epilepsy were forbidden to marry in 17 states, until 1956. The last state to repeal this law did so only in 1980. In 1956, 18 states provided for the sterilization, on eugenic grounds, of people with epilepsy. In the United Kingdom, a law prohibiting people with epilepsy from marrying was repealed in 1970."
My mother told me that people would not understand what I had and would make judgments about me. She told me I would have to stop doing some things like riding my bike, and I might not be able to drive -- that they would have to see how the medicine worked.
Throughout high school, I took a variety of meds to manage my secret diagnosis. At the time, I was 6'6'' and weighed 160 lbs. The meds, in the beginning, made me so tired I at times could hardly hold my head, up. Additionally, I suffered from disfiguring severe cystic acne that was believed to be connected to my meds. The remainder of high school I never had my picture taken, I did not attend graduation. Looking back a combination of shame and wanting to be invisible. I looked different, and I felt different. In my lankiness, I moved like a toddler giraffe and did everything I could not be noticed.
Since that time, a lifetime ago, I have been off seizure meds for over 25 years and even longer seizure free.
While I still have the scars on my face from acne, something that has faded with age, the wounds of the epilepsy stigma have not faded. I have never been able to get my head around knowing that people would hate me not for what I did but simply because of who I was, something over which I had no control. The fact that my diagnosis caused my mother so much pain that it was something that only discussed in the confines of her bedroom. I was someone who seemingly had to be whispered about in privacy.
Since that time, I have been quick to suppress that especially fearful time in my life, when I felt as if I had to be invisible to survive.
Now several years later, we are hearing unthinkable rhetoric from a presidential candidate, mocking the "other" -- those with disabilities, a different religion, a foreign heritage. Building walls within our country with words.
I recall the jokes in high school about epileptics hoping my nervous laugh would not give me away; I was afraid that soon the dots would be connected to me.
I am personally moved to advocate for not turning the clock back on centuries of bigotry against those of us that might be different. We must not build the physical brick walls to keep people out, nor something much higher, the invisible walls of hate. When the political climate changes, hate is in many ways harder to tear down than something physical. Not unlike an overflowing bathtub, hate seeps into every crack and crevice. And like a leak, unattended, even a small flow can down the tallest and the strongest.
My professional interest is in preventing cancer. Everything that we accomplish comes from people who have compassion and act without judgment.
Our run here on the planet is brief; it needs to be one of actions for others not against others. If we are ever to see advances in treating society's ill -- from poverty to cancer -- our leadership must be focused on bringing people together, not stepping on others to fill our egos and bank accounts, or worse, throwing it all under the bus just to win elections.
So whatever the politics -- left, right or everything in between -- let's never make it about hate of the "other." If we are ever to find common ground on so many crucial social issues, we must do it from a place of caring.