By Debra Ruh
This week, we celebrated Thanksgiving in the United States. My family spent the Thanksgiving Holiday in the Henrico Doctors Hospital. My daughter Sara was born with Downs syndrome and she is now 31 years old. She was diagnosed with a large blood clot in a vein in her liver. The blood clot caused terrible IBS and inflammation. It was hard to spend the holiday in the hospital but we also felt safer being surrounded by these caring professionals. I have so much to be grateful for this year including Sara’s journey back to health. My husband, son, partners, friends, family and my own health is a blessing and I am grateful and thankful for my life. Over the year, I’ve hosted guests on my podcast who’ve enriched my spirit and sparked my mind, giving real insight into issues related to people with disabilities and the aging population. I am a baby boomer generation – those born between 1946 to 1964. The youngest boomers are 54 years old and the oldest are over 70. I believe that my generation still has a lot of value to offer the world. My generation wants to reinvent aging and retirement.
And as the leaves began to change color in Virginia, Sara was in the hospital for several weeks. The talented healthcare professionals at the hospital helped us begin to weather the health challenges of my precious daughter. As many of you know, Sara has Down Syndrome, and brings a light to the world that more than makes the case for disability inclusion. She, and the one billion people with disabilities across the globe, make the world a better place. They simply want the chance to display that for the rest of the world to see.
Sara is the driving force for fighting the good fight for people with disabilities every day.
In pondering the many things we have to be thankful for this year, here are seven people, living and dead, who enriched our understanding of people with disabilities and made the world a better place. Some you know. Some you don’t.
Helen Keller — This has been a tough year for Miss Keller, though she died in 1968. In one of the most narrow-minded decisions related to people with disabilities, the state school board in Texas voted to remove Keller from a list of figures that should be part of the Lone Star State’s history curriculum. Frankly, with this move, Texas makes the term ‘board of education” into an oxymoron.
Keller, who lost her hearing, sight and speech as a child because of the impact of either scarlet fever or meningitis, became the first global ambassador for people with disabilities. She graduated from Radcliffe College and became a successful author and social justice advocate who met and advised every president from Grover Cleveland to John Kennedy. Her impact still reaches all people around the globe today, helping change perception of PWDs.
Flannery O’Connor – Like Keller, O’Connor became a person with a disability in the wake of illness, in her case, lupus. The Georgia native was a master of the Southern Gothic literary form and often included persons with disabilities as key characters in her novels. Her books and short stories, including “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People” often address issues of ethics and morality, arguing that people with disabilities reveal “authentic good”.
Sir George Shearing –Born blind, George Shearing was one of the great jazz pianists of his generation, winning three Grammys in a career spanning more than seven decades. A keyboard master of jazz, swing, bebop and cool jazz. Drawing upon classical influences, Shearing performed with a variety of artists, including Mel Torme’. Listen to Shearing’s “September in the Rain” for a sample of his mastery. Here’s a link: https://youtu.be/yHpiMggS3Sw
Stephen Hawking: We lost this brilliant man in 2018. Hawking revolutionized thought about the origins of time and the universe despite ALS. His book: “A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes.”
Aside from his monumental scientific achievement, Hawking also increased understanding of persons with disabilities through his cameo roles in American television, including “The Simpsons” and “The Big Bang Theory.”
Simi Linton: You have to love this author and advocate if for no other reason than this quote alone: “If I hear the term ‘people with special needs’ one more time, I’m gonna punch somebody. The more they say that phrase, the more it sounds like the burden is on us to keep up.”
Linton is an icon of disability studies, thanks to her books, “Claiming Disability” and “My Body Politic.” She also serves as an advocate to bring more people with disabilities into the arts and to improve and increase the exposure of PWDs on television, in film and in theater.
Tammy Duckworth: Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, lost both legs and part of an arm when the Blackhawk helicopter she piloted was struck by an RPG above Iraq. A former assistant director of the Veterans Administration, Duckworth formerly served in the House of Representatives.
Ludwig Von Beethoven: This time of year, it’s appropriate to mention the great composer, whose “Ode to Joy” in his Ninth Symphony is an anthem of hope. Beethoven was often frustrated by his progressive hearing loss but continued to craft timeless music that has endured for centuries.
There are countless other stories of people with disabilities who’ve made a mark on society in every sphere of influence, FDR, artist Frida Kahlo, actress Marlee Matlin and others. These are not “inspiration stories” though they inspire. These are individuals of accomplishment, who made our world a richer, better place. And their presence among us is reason aplenty for gratitude.
Happy Thanksgiving, all.