Can Numbers Express Emotions?

Posted by Dr. Dan Gottlieb in Life After Paralysis on June 01, 2017 # Mobility

In my last blog, I talked about how we have all had the experience of not being seen for who we are. Instead we are seen as just a wheelchair or a walker. I’ve lost count of the number of times in the last three decades I've gone into a restaurant with a friend and the hostess will say: "where would he like to sit?" We've all been there and we all know what it feels like. And when that experience is repeated, it can make someone helpless and hopeless. Or furious.

That’s because throughout the lifecycle, one of the greatest human longings is to be understood and accepted for who we are. Without that, we are at risk for a variety of social and psychological problems. (I've watched marriages break up because people feel misunderstood. Adolescents act out or run away from home for the same reason.)

Shortly after that blog was published, the White House released their budget proposal that shows significant cuts in Medicaid and Social Security. And as we have been hearing from the Foundation, the proposed budget eliminates all funding for the Reeve Paralysis Resource Center.

If even a semblance of this budget passes, it would have a devastating effect on us along with millions of other people who are suffering. So how did this happen?

Of course budgets are prepared by people who want to balance what we bring in with what we spend. And for decades now we have been spending more than we have been bringing in. Cuts have to be made. But here's where budgets express emotions. Or perhaps how they fail to express emotions.

We are looking at a budget today that is void of compassion. A budget that fails to look into the eyes and hearts of people who our suffering. It's a budget created and approved by people who can't or don't want to understand the depth and breadth of what so many of us live with.

It's very natural for us to use our own lives as a template for how we see the world. For example, if we are born to anxious and insecure parents who see the world as dangerous, we are likely to do the same and make our decisions accordingly. If we grew up in a family where the mentality is that of a zero sum game, where there are only winners and losers, then that's how we will see the world-as endlessly competitive. It's like that for all of us.

And it works the other way also. If we grow up with loving secure parents who try to make the world a better place, it’s likely we will also. It also turns out that if we grew up in a family where a member has a disability, we are likely to be more compassionate and try to make the world a better place. Almost every parent I’ve counseled who has a child with autism tells me that child taught them how to love better. My own children are both devoted to helping humans and animals.

In the late 1980s, then Atty. Gen. Richard Thornburgh was the prime mover of the ADA. Fortunately Pres. HW Bush was also a compassionate man who was open to these ideas. How did this happen? When Thornburgh's son Peter was four years old he was in a terrible car accident resulting in lifelong brain damage and disability. He knew human suffering and couldn’t turn his back on it.

We use our lives as a template for how we see the world and whether or not we are caring and compassionate people. But humans change. I wonder if Dick Thornburgh thought much about disabilities before Peter's accident. I didn't think much about it before mine. Worse, I had the same stereotypes as the general population. We change. Or, more accurately, we can change.

The world changes when one person can look the other in the eye and say: "Tell me your story. Tell me what it's like to be you and live your life."

But sometimes, if the powers that be lack the compassion to ask us our story, we have to find a way to tell our stories so they can be heard.

I began by saying how alienation can cause either withdrawal or anger. And anger can be a functional emotion. Yes, we have to write our Congress people over and over again. And we have to protest and take to the streets if necessary. And I'm not just talking about the several million with spinal cord injury, I'm talking about everyone with disabilities. And to do this just for the purpose of being seen for who we are and inviting the powers that be to make eye contact.

And care.