Guest Post: Why I Hate The Invisible!

Speed can do some serious damage – and so can attitudes

Another great post from our friend Ken Collins

37 years ago today, I was recovering at my parent’s home in Oakridge, Oregon after I ran head first into the side of a parked car while riding Pat Moore’s snowmobile by Summit Lake, Oregon, at 4 a.m., on December 31, 1976. My friends who were there saved my life and said I was going full speed when I hit the car and was catapulted from the snowmobile to the side of Bob Brewers Ford Pinto.

On impact, I broke my left jaw below my chin and rammed my right jawbone through my ear canal, separated my skull completely (cap fracture), shattered most of my teeth and fractured a rib. In the hospital the doctors couldn’t set my jaw for two days because of brain swelling.

My hospital records show that I was in a Posey Jacket and wrist restraints all the time I was in the hospital. One day when I was in the bathroom I yanked out my catheter and a few days later were sent home with my parents because I started to get loose (3 times in 6 days). On my last day in the hospital I was found urinating in a planter in the hallway.

For my own safety and the liability of the hospital, I was sent home with my family who were told if they couldn’t handle me then put me in a nursing home. Luckily my family spared me the fate that awaits many young people who sustain these types of injuries: long term confinement to the nursing home, long term rehabilitation facility or state institution – unless they have good insurance, but when that runs out and they become “poor”, many will be forced to have the government pick up the tab. This starts by applying for Social Security Income (SSI).

After people go on SSI, they will become eligible for Medicaid, which will pay for long-term care in a nursing home or institution, if Medicaid home and community-based services aren’t available to them in their state. These services are critical if the person with a disability wants to go back home and try to get on with their lives.

This new life also comes with having to survive on $498.00 a month Social Security benefits to pay for shelter, food, utilities and whatever else they can afford. When they are lucky enough to have a long work history they will go on Social Security Disability Income and make more, maybe $600 to $900 a month. What kind of life can you afford on this income?

Oregon was one of the first states in the U.S. to develop Medicaid home and community-based services. This was all after my injury, and if home and community-based services would have been available, I might not have had to steal food and do other things that would have put me in jail or prison if I’d been caught. It’s humiliating to have to steal food to survive.

Humiliation is invisible: that’s why I hate the invisible!

Every night when I would go to bed and close my eyes and try to sleep I would see –
pictures of people, images and objects floating by as I lay there with my eyes closed. They were like negatives of pictures just floating by. Faces of people looking at me, pictures of people setting or pictures of several people setting or standing, all kinds of scenes and images floating by as I tried to sleep. When I would finally get to sleep I wouldn’t dream. In the morning when I awoke it was like I didn’t sleep at all.

These pictures floated by for about five years, and it took another five years before when I closed my eyes – the face of the man with a beard and long hair looking at me on the other side of my eyelids went away.

Ten years may seem a like a long time for most people, but for those of us who live with a brain injury everyday life really only starts being less of a struggle after the first ten years. For most of us, life will never be the same and for some the struggle will never end.

Before my accident I was a professional baseball player and everyone’s friend. After my injury, when I would see the same people in the community – they would go the other way.
The struggle and turmoil caused by brain injury is invisible: that’s why I hate the invisible!

It took me 13 years before I could start to smell again, and because after the first year of not smelling I forgot what things smelled like – now I have to relearn all over again. It took me 18 years before the numbness on the left side of my body went away, however the limp is still there when I get tired or have a long day.

It took 20 years for me not to have to look on the calendar or my day planner to know what I was going to do that day. Now, at night when I sleep I can dream again. It took me 25 years before this was possible.

To look at me now, 33 years later, you would never guess that I have had such a difficult time. I have faced many of society’s barriers, most of these attitudinal. Attitudes are invisible and are fueled by ignorance and fear to create invisible lines of prejudice and discrimination. Attitudes are invisible and breakdown trust, hope and our own well-being.

Attitudes divide us, separate us and control us: that’s why I hate the invisible!

Handicapped gets its origins from an old European phrase, “cap in hand” when people with disabilities had to beg to survive. Why is it that people with disabilities are forced into begging the Congress and Senate every year not to cut Medicaid, food stamps and other programs they depend on to survive? Politicians say they care and are full of promises to help. What they say and what they do are two different things: that’s why I hate the invisible!

Invalid and invalid are spelled the same, but have different meanings. These words perpetuate the stigmas and stereotypes people with disabilities must wear.

Stigmas and stereotypes are invisible: that’s why I hate the invisible!

People with disabilities are often referred to as “invisible” because we don’t have the means to be heard. We don’t have the money to pay a lobbyist to hang out at the capital. They say: “we need your input” but when we offer it – our input is disregarded all in the name of “health and safety”.

Paternalism is invisible: that’s why I hate the invisible!

Away we go, trying to rebuild our shattered lives in a society that does not equip us to deal with the prejudice and discrimination we will face because of our disabilities. When we fall short of our personal expectations we fall victim to a paternalistic system that tries to fix our every move and keep us safe and not allow us to learn from our mistakes just like everyone else.

Last week, when I was job developing with a 48-year-old man who has a brain injury and a long and productive work history, and I ask the manager, if they were hiring. She has worked with our agency before so I consider her to be a lot more educated about employing people with disabilities than most in Gallup.

As I ask her about hiring Robert, she announced to me in a loud voice as she stood by the cash register, that she doesn’t have any opening right now but, “I have worked with people like that before” looking straight at Robert as if he was invisible.

Didn’t she see his shoulders slump when she uttered those words? Didn’t she see how he looked at her after she said what she said? Doesn’t she understand that words can cut deeply just like a knife and cause unseen pain that reinforces the stigmas and stereotypes we must overcome if we are truly going to become equal members of our community?

Many of my friends use wheelchairs to get around because of accidents, injuries or illness. When we go shopping in stores or go out to eat at restaurants something that usually happens is the clerk or server will ask “me” what “they” want? Sometimes they speak louder when they ask them what they want.

I guess because they can’t walk that means they can’t hear either?

How often do we hear someone call someone or something “retarded” without regard to what they are saying? This phrase is despicable and degrading to people born with mental retardation and yet we hear the “retarded” phrase just about everyday. There is a very good chance that you use this word as part of your own descriptive vocabulary.

When people with brain injuries and advocates try to educate people in our society about how this word should never be used because it hurts peoples feelings and is degrading we are faced with indifference.

Indifference is invisible: that’s why I hate the invisible!

People with brain injuries want to live just like everyone else. We don’t like to be made fun of or talked down to. Honor, embrace and value our experience and knowledge we have gained.

If you hear someone call someone “Retard” – “Crazy” or other degrading names – speak up and educate them about what they are saying. If you see someone making fun of someone who has a brain injury or retarded – speak up and tell them not to do be so ignorant!

Don’t be afraid to speak up and be heard, because nothing gets done when you say nothing and become invisible!

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Discretion is the better part of valour

(British & Australian, literary, American & Australian, literary)… means that it is better to be careful and think before you act than it is to be brave and take risks.

I have to re-learn this periodically… sometimes the hard way, by screwing up and remembering that sometimes inhibitions are good!

it’s particularly important for TBI survivors (or anyone dealing with a stigmatized, misunderstood, chronic condition).

As much as we may want to reach out and help others, when it comes to revealing details about ourselves and our lives, tbi survivors need to be especially careful. The rest of the world doesn’t necessarily understand what it’s like to be head-injured and still be functional. There’s a lot of prejudice out there. And if people have information about you having had a tbi, it can work against you.

I recently heard a story about a tbi survivor who posted a comment online identifying themself with first and last name. Unfortunately, they were job-hunting at the time that they posted about having had a tbi, and people they were interviewing with Googled them and found out about them… and their job search got that much harder.

That’s truly unfortunate. I’m sure it happens all too frequently. I know someone whose successful father went through his entire adult life needing to hide his epilepsy because of all the stigma and the negative effect it would have had on his ability to provide for his family.

Sadly, this is still the case with so many conditions. The ADA is supposed to protect people like us from discrimination, but there are so many ways for employers and lenders and other folks in power to get around the laws, that even if we are discriminated against, the burden is on us to prove it. And if you’ve got a cognitive deficit and you can’t afford a decent lawyer, well, then you can be pretty much out of luck.

Some Poor Person’s Strategies for Preserving Autonomy and Human Dignity are…

  • Silence. Period.
  • Strictly closed lips about your condition unless you’re in the company of close confidantes who can be trusted.
  • Obsessively guarded health information that is Never Ever shared with others who may use that information against you. That includes co-workers or colleagues who may be competing with you professionally, at some point on down the line.
  • Making sure you surround yourself with family and loved ones and friends and supporters who can defend you, no matter what.

It’s unfortunate that we live in a world where something as random as a head injury can have such a dramatic impact on your life and livelihood, but it happens. All the time.

With this in mind, I’ve disabled the setting on this blog that requires a name and email address for each comment. I hope this may help others like me avoid the situation that hapless job-hunter had to deal with.


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