May 21, 2018

No More Hiding

Schuyler’s time in high school is quickly drawing to a close, faster than either of us are emotionally prepared for. As part of that transition, her percussion studio at Plano Senior had their end-of-the-year pool party yesterday, an annual event that concludes with awards, remembrances of the graduating seniors by her percussion director and a round-the-room sharing and appreciation by all the students in the class.

The final award given is a kind of spirit award, but more than that. It’s named after a former student, one who brought so much enthusiasm and positivity to the band and had such a deep effect on the people around him that the award was created specifically with him in mind. He wasn’t disabled, not that I know of. He just set a bar for bringing a kind of leadership through attitude and personal relationships. He possessed a light, we were told, and a kind of gravity that pulled in the people around him, and the award looked to recognize that quality in others. It’s an interesting award in that the criteria is based on intangibles. It’s one that has a great deal of meaning to the director and to the students.

And this year, the award went to Schuyler.

It was a bit of a surprise, I’ll own that. I worry so much about Schuyler finding acceptance and being understood by the people around her, not just her communication but her overall “Schuylerness”, and out of my fear for her quality of life, I occasionally (and shamefully) forget to make room for the idea that she’s giving something to the world around her. Being surprised by Schuyler’s success is never a reaction that makes me feel like a swell father.

And yet, as her director described the award and the young man for whom it was named and founded, I found myself thinking that in a just world, in a fair and inclusive society, Schuyler could win an award like that. Hearing her name announced did something to me, something weird and hopeful and a little bit guilty for believing that in THIS world, in MY world, Schuyler wouldn’t win, couldn’t break through the barriers that have dogged her and her friends all along. When Schuyler won that award, it spoke to possibilities.

In his comments about Schuyler, her director spoke about her early days in band, and was frank about how so many people at the time simply didn’t get Schuyler. I remember those days. When she got to middle school, something changed for Schuyler. She didn’t charm everyone like she did in elementary school. She confused many of her teachers and frustrated a few. But her band director got her entirely, and that band director was married to the percussion director at Plano Senior. He knew Schuyler already, and he got her. He was one of the primary reasons we elected to send Schuyler to Plano Senior. He and his wife get Schuyler as much as anyone in her life, as much as any family member. They will be profoundly missed when she graduates.

Schuyler’s fellow students spoke about her positivity and how much joy she brought to their lives. One young man spoke about how happy he was to see that he had been assigned to Schuyler’s concert band because she was so much fun to make music with. Another told her how when he saw her at Homecoming, he was taken by how much natural beauty she possessed, and how so much of that came from the person she is at her core. The one thing that none of her fellow percussionists said about Schuyler was that she was an inspiration. The thing that no one did was condescend to her.

That was a big deal. That was a really big deal. I've been writing and speaking about the value of authentic relationships with people with disabilities, about how I believe that's the key to successful disability advocacy and a truly inclusive society. I don't think I give a half-terrible presentation on the topic, either. But Schuyler is my best argument. At times, she's the living embodiment of what I'm trying to describe. She lives and breathes it. Schuyler illustrates the value of getting to truly understand people who are profoundly different and looking past their disability to appreciate the whole human. Not to pretend that disability isn't there or doesn't matter, but rather to put it in a larger, more nuanced context. The kids who have been in band with Schuyler, particularly her fellow percussionists, they started out meeting a girl with a disability, and perhaps a daunting one at the time. But to the best of them, that didn't define her for long.

In a few short weeks, Schuyler will leave the protective environment of school and the community that has come to really know and understand her. That concerns me, of course, because until she got to Plano Senior, Schuyler was dedicated on a fundamental level to passing. If you don’t know that term, in the disability world “passing” refers to the practice among people with more invisible disabilities to pass as neurotypical, to hide their disability and walk through the world with their differences unrecognized.

It’s controversial, the concept of passing, and for good reason. For one thing, at least for Schuyler, it was doomed to fail. Even if she succeeded for 95% of the time (and that would frankly be a high percentage), that last 5% is where it would fall apart, like a commercial plane flight that was 95% successful in taking off and landing safely. Passing for Schuyler meant delaying the inevitable, and it perhaps sent a message that there’s something shameful about her disability, and that she sees herself as less. In a society that struggles to treat people like Schuyler as fully realized human beings, that’s a dangerous path to go down.

When I say dangerous, I mean that literally. My dear friend and speech language mentor Lindsey Paden Cargill recently tweeted the disturbing results of a study showing that passing (or social camouflaging) is the best predictor of suicidality among autistic people. Think of that for a moment. Trying to mask their differences and pass for typical is literally costing neurodiverse people their lives.

Schuyler isn’t autistic, and I realize that there’s only so much that can legitimately be applied to her from that study. But I believe that the more Schuyler attempts to present herself as something she’s not, the more damage she takes on herself. She’s not less. She’s different, and she requires some patience and some accommodation in order to move successfully through the world. But when she’s truly understood and truly known for herself, she takes flight.

I think she’s beginning to get that. Maybe it began when she found her tribe in band at Plano Senior last year. It was certainly strengthened when she began to advocate for herself in the presentations we’ve given over the past few years. Perhaps it’s simply part of her growing up and finding her place in the world, an elusive groove that is only now presenting itself to her. All I know for sure is that she’s excited about this summer, presenting in Denver and in Australia, being surrounded not just by people like her but also by people who aren’t but whom she could maybe reach and find a new understanding.

Recently Schuyler got a new speaker to boost the inadequate sound produced by her iPad. When it arrived, I confess it was larger than we expected. She was looking for something she could attach on a lanyard, but this speaker was a little too large for that. It was also much louder than any speaker she’d used before. Louder, and deeper, more present.

The first time she used it to order at a restaurant, she jumped when her electronic British voice spoke. But the reaction she got was entirely positive, and since then, she’s been using it at full volume most of the time. She’s less afraid of being noticed and more enamored of being actually heard and understood. Finding more success at communicating is apparently worth the risk of being looked at and having her difference recognized.

When I asked her how she liked her big, loud speaker, Schuyler told me that she has a new motto. “No more hiding,” she said.

She may backslide from that from time to time; I can’t imagine she’s done with people who don’t understand what she’s all about and who have no patience or empathetic inclination to try. But yesterday, as she learned just how highly she is regarded among her peers, Schuyler saw with fresh eyes just how much she has to gain from being who she is, without pretense.

I’m looking forward to seeing more of her embracing her authentic self. The world is going to be a better place with that particular Schuyler in it.


May 6, 2018

The Care and Feeding of Monsters

I recently had the surreal but entirely positive experience of revisiting my book on the occasion of its release, ten years after publication, in audiobook form. I began listening as a kind of quality check, bracing myself for the voice actor to introduce “Shooler’s Monster”. (He didn’t; he was actually a fantastic actor, and I couldn’t be more pleased that he was the one who got to spend nine hours in a recording booth instead of me. We were all spared my stuttering, monotone twang. You’re welcome.) I began listening to the first chapter, and then, like a drunk who blacks out and then wakes up the next day pantsless in the park, suddenly I found I’d listened to the whole thing.

I stayed for the entire book, not because it is such a brilliant work of wordsmithery, but rather because I hadn’t actually read the whole thing from beginning to end in, well, probably ten years. Once I stepped into the prologue, back in New Haven with baby Schuyler and that beautiful, horrible afternoon in a late New England summer, all my half-forgotten anxieties and heartbreaks and WTF moments became real to me all over again.

I found myself back in the summer of 2003, when my baby girl was an internally focused and entirely wordless enigma, and the future consisted of a rolling mist, opaque but presumedly fully of hungry, hateful monsters. Schuyler was imperiled by that future, and I was too dumb and too scared to do anyway thing more than step into it with her. 2003 was the summer of “Well, shit, here goes nothing.”

Monsters. Their nature has changed over the years, although they are as omnipresent as ever. I have a small confession to make about the title of my book. Some people hated it, and others found it to be an elegant metaphor, but either way, it wasn’t my brilliant idea, not directly. I’d been referring to “Schuyler’s monster” on my blog for some time before the book was written, but the term itself originally came from Schuyler.

I’ve said many times that the only two things I know for sure I’ll always give Schuyler are love and the truth, and that was true from the very beginning. After her diagnosis, she knew something was wrong, she understood that something big had changed. When I tried to explain it to her on a level that would make some sense to her (as if it made any to me, then or now), her eyes lit up, and she asked a question, with her combination of primitive sign language, even more primitive verbal language, and her omnipresent miming as if her life was an unending game of charades,

Was it a tiny little monster living in her head?

And I thought, You know what? It kind of is. Let’s go with that.

At the time immediately after Schuyler’s diagnosis, in my state of numbed panic and heartbreak, the idea of what a little monster inside her beautiful but inscrutable brain might be doing to her was simple. It was hurting her. It was trampling her future and making its plans to whip up lightning storms inside her sweet little head. It might have even been preparing to extinguish her life altogether. No one knew, and because I’m her father and thus needed to be prepared, I believed the worst case scenarios and stood by, ready to do what I could to protect her from that monster and those storms. I was aware then as I am now, of course, that what I could do to save her was not a goddamn thing.

It’s been almost fifteen years since that awful summer, the one that broke me but not Schuyler. The life she lives now is not the one we were warned to prepare ourselves for. Her brain was badly malformed, maybe as much as three quarters of it affected by her polymicrogyria, but it nevertheless reformed its lines and rewired its functions and is doing its brainly job with style and ingenuity. She had feeding difficulties, but aside from maybe half a dozen terrifying choking incidents, she’s navigated the world of food with gusto, and most of those feeding issues have completely faded. She has intellectual disabilities, but she’s not a fool. She experiences and processes the world around her in her own way, but that way isn't childish or insufficient.

It’s weird and wonderful and cool, Schuyler’s brain world. And she’s right. It has a monster in it.

This monster isn't the one I feared when she was so much younger. It’s not a monster that Schuyler hates, I don’t think, not really. Her polymicrogyria, and the unique life it gives her, is hard, and it lacks navigation or instructions. But after all these years of keeping on keeping on, of finding what works and what she wants to do with the complicated and compromised life she’s been given, Schuyler lives that life always aware of her challenges but not fixated on them. At the impossible age of eighteen, she’s doing her very best, and her very best isn’t bad at all. As a matter of fact, Schuyler’s best is pretty extraordinary.

And there’s a monster there still. She seems less and less motivated to hide it than she was even a year ago, which I believe is a very positive development. She seems less interested in trying to pass for neurotypical than she was even a year ago. Perhaps she’s experienced the world of the neurotypical for long enough to know that we’re not so perfect, or more to the point so undamaged, as she might have once believed. The reality of the world has made a strong case for alternative possibilities she might not have entertained before now.

The typical world is kind of fucked up, in other words. Her atypical life might not be all that lacking after all.

If you’re not a part of the disability community, and by that I mean if you don’t have a disability yourself, or have immediate family members or professional clients with a disability, you might imagine our lives as being an ongoing season of The Disability Show all the time. And I guess on some level that’s true, in that it never goes away. There’s always a monster-shaped chair in every room, and it’s never unoccupied.

Our reality is more subtle than that, however. We don’t talk about it every day, or even most days. The older Schuyler gets, the less she worries about it. And for all that I write about Schuyler’s polymicrogyria and trying to make sense of it, I don’t think of Schuyler as the disabled kid all the time. I’m not always Disability Dad. Sometimes I’m Amateur Musician Dad now, for example; I’ve begun to learn a new instrument (the ophicleide, which is perhaps the ultimate hipster instrument, in that you’ve probably never heard of it). Schuyler helped me get it, starting a little fundraiser last fall, and now she watches me play and asks lots of questions and may in fact be the only human being in both my near and remote orbits who isn’t sick to fucking death of hearing about the goddamn ophicleide. We’re all living our lives as people, and Schuyler’s disability is a significant part of that, but it doesn’t suck up all the oxygen in the room the way it once did.

It’s not that I live in denial. But the fact is, when you know Schuyler, she’s just Schuyler, polymicrogyria and weird ways and rockstar presence and big laugh and all. When you get to know her, she becomes more.

That’s important. The world in general sees someone like Schuyler as less. It sees people like her as diminished members of society, because it doesn’t see them in their totality. People with disabilities are treated like partial people by our society because our society doesn’t know them. Much of our society doesn’t even realize they are knowable. And until those relationships become real, until students in school and adults in their workplaces and tv viewers turning on their favorite shows begin to see people like Schuyler existing and working and laughing and cursing and living messy lives right next to them, there will always be a divide. There will always be an Other. And as a society, we are absolutely shit when it comes to embracing the Other.

Schuyler’s life now is a mix of the typical and the monstered. She attended her school’s Homecoming dance last fall, with a shy young man who asked her to the dance and made her world suddenly bright with possibilities. She went to prom last week with another exceptional young man, this time one whom she invited, perhaps because she’s beginning to understand that if she wants to have the world on her terms, she’s got to spell those terms out herself. This summer we’re speaking to a gathering of polymicrogria families and then traveling to Australia so she can attend a leadership workshop for adults who use assistive speech technology. And at the end of the summer, she’ll enter into an internship at a major local hospital, where she’ll spend about nine months learning valuable job skills in a variety of different positions.

After that, Schuyler will enter the adult world in earnest. She’ll step into the foggiest of fogs, and she’ll lose the protections that school and childhood have cloaked her in. Will the world be ready for her? Is it ready for any of her peers? I sometimes wonder. The speeches I’ve been giving over the past few years have contained a lot of calls to arms where disability rights and societal change and authentic relationships with people like Schuyler are concerned, but I sometimes fear that while the faces in the audience may change, they’re still mostly members of the choir that I’m preaching to.

I want to change the world, and I fear that I can’t. It’s dawning on me now that I’m not going to be the one to do it.

It’ll be Schuyler, and people like her. And they’ll do it because it needs to be done. The rest of us need to help them build a world in which they have the opportunities the rest of us enjoy in our extreme privilege. And when we step back and watch what they do with those opportunities, all I know for certain is that our only appropriate reactions will be ones of respect, and maybe even just a touch of awe.