Yes, I can! What if We All Embraced Recovery?

disability rights are civil rights

In his 1965 “If I Ruled the World” album, Sammy Davis Jr. sang,

Yes, I can, suddenly

Yes, I can

Gee I’m afraid to go on, has turn into

Yes, I can

Wind me up then watch me fly

A regular sort of sunburned Superman I

Are you ready, I can climb Everest

Yes, I can

I can fight here all night and never rest

Yes I can

In fact, one of three lead members of the Rat Pack and so successful in the industry he was called Mr. Show Business, Sammy Davis, Jr. was nonetheless much more familiar with a jarring repetition of “No… you can’t.”

That’s a phrase that some in our society have heard much more frequently than others.

We tend to think of being held back only in terms of success, but it’s much more fundamental than that. Our American family has evolved to the sophistication that our lives are extraordinarily interdependent. Our daily lives depend on the contributions of millions of people, who provide the goods, services, infrastructure, government and joint defense we rely upon.

Humans find meaning and purpose in determining their niche and pitching in their own unique impact. And, when this is thwarted, we’re like ants with no role in the colony.

All of us have occasionally heard “No, you can’t.” We’re told we’re not smart enough. Not persistent enough. We don’t have the resources for the preparation. But, the message is shouted from society at people with serious mental illness over and over.

This past year a blogger wrote in the Huffington Post that it was time to discontinue the use of the word recovery for mental health. She suggested such a concept doesn’t exist for people with more serious challenges. Legislative reform efforts highlight recovery from addiction but decrease self direction for individuals with mental health challenges.

A top healthcare policy maker called for “Bring[ing] Back the Asylums,” and shared his belief that there are a million Americans currently living in communities who are in fact so permanently disabled with serious mental illness they should instead be confined to institutions.

Just three years ago, the CEO for one of America’s largest Community Mental Health Centers talked of hiring 200 peers, individuals with lived experience of serious mental health challenges, but explained that their roles would be limited to janitorial and administrative functions.

Repeated. No. You can’t.

It is time to change the narrative. It is time we all embraced recovery. Time for a different answer to three questions.

Question one. What if I don’t move to the back of the bus?

In 1955, a seamstress and activist in Montgomery, Alabama boarded a bus and sat in the first row behind the front section dedicated to white riders. When those seats were filled, she refused the order to move to the back of the bus.

Her protest was a powerful symbol in inspiring other African Americans and a catalyst of the civil rights movement, which would help pave the hard road to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Society stood up to the institutional barriers that prevented African Americans from full participation, with such key rights as electing public officials. In Selma, Alabama, African Americans were legally entitled to vote, except…

No, you can’t, without a sponsor who has previously voted.

No, you can’t, without passing the literacy test.

No, you can’t, without paying the voter’s fee.

After hearing these kinds of messages over and over and over, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus.

Question two. What would I do if I was not afraid?

What contribution would I make? If I didn’t fear looking foolish. Didn’t fear failing. Wasn’t concerned about not staying “in my place.”

Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer for Facebook, asked a group of Harvard MBA students to stand if they had previously considered leading their company, their industry, their field. It concerned her that too few female students did so. Equal or more intelligent, articulate, capable, but lacking the ambition of their male counterparts.

They too have heard messages. We have the highest number of female CEOs ever a recent article stated… at 5% compared with male CEOs at its lowest level… or 95%. No, you can’t.

But, Sheryl turned herself straight against the wind and wrote Lean In, inspiring women to support one another, and to consider the hopes and dreams of what they would accomplish… if they were not afraid.

Question three. What if my answer is… Yes, I can.

Recently, a group promoting the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games created the most bombastic, spectacularly positive and frame-breaking video of the year, We’re the Superhumans, which used as its theme song Sammy Davis Jr.’s Yes, I can.

It certainly wasn’t the first time that the disability community has borrowed from the African American struggle for civil rights. Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Social services are no longer a matter of the charity of “do-gooders,” but the requirement of a civil right. Our constitution now demands an end to institutionalizing and/or segregating people with disabilities as the answer. And, it calls for an end to discrimination in hiring for competitive employment.

The first efforts to obtain dignity and equal opportunity for people with disabilities were much like our mental health promotion. Flyers and bumper stickers included the following:

  • Think Inclusively! School, Work, Play, Community, Life
  • Assume Competence
  • Label Jars… Not People
  • Not Being Able to Speak is Not the Same as Not Having Anything to Say
  • Celebrate Community
  • If you… Thought the… Wheel… Was a good idea… You’re going to love the ramp.
  • Don’t Think That We Don’t Think
  • Raging Against the Dying of the Light: Institutions Are Not the Solutions

The movement has been adamant about the power of language. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will really hurt me.” I visited the remarkable Disability Empowerment Center in Phoenix recently and noticed that it has been powerfully renamed Ability 360.

Helen Keller emerged as a champion of the disability rights movement, determined to break the hold of discrimination, and the language of “childlike,” “dependent,” and “disabled.”

Yes, I can.

injustice is a threat to justice everywhereBut, society refused to yield. Material change just did not result from the most thoughtful and persuasive plea. And, so people with disabilities continued modeling the Civil Rights Movement. The iconic photo at right includes the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote on a banner, “Injustice Anywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere.”

In the 1980s, the activist national network ADAPT encouraged nonviolent civil disobedience to demand changes in policies that excluded people with disabilities from full community participation. They were strongly focused on public transportation, including handcuffing themselves to buses that were not accessible to people in wheelchairs. One of their flyers stated, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

Our Declaration of Independence set all these expectations in motion 240 years ago. “All men are created equal… with certain unalienable rights… whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.”

It was the capitol crawl that finally pushed the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act across the finish line and the signing by President George H.W. Bush. After an interminable delay with the House of Representatives, at a large rally, 60 activists abandoned their wheel chairs to climb up the 83 stone steps to access the U.S. Capitol Building.

And, this brings us back to the most remarkable re-frame. “We’re the Superhumans” is a delicious, toe-tapping celebration of the indomitable human spirit and the power of “Yes, I can!” The Guardian described it:

“[Superhumans] shows exactly how much excitement you can generate if you cram the talent of 140 athletes, musicians and ordinary people with disabilities into three minutes of television. From a pilot steering a plane with her feet to a blind pianist, it’s a celebration of an extraordinary range of talent.”

I just cannot get singer Tony Dee’s version of Sammy Davis, Jr. out of my head or stop thinking about wheelchair stuntman Aaron Fotheringham’s death-defying flight. It’s “Yes, I can” sung in the shower at the top of your lungs.

African Americans. Females. People with disabilities. LGBT. Different differences. Same challenges.

How Does Any of this Relate to Mental Health?

But, the three questions. What if… I don’t move to the back of the bus? What if… I’m not afraid? What if… my answer is Yes, I can.

People with disabilities, like those in a wheelchair, Deaf, blind or with an intellectual and/or developmental disability, still have an unacceptably high unemployment rate. But put another way it’s clear they’ve had much more success than we’ve had in mental health. Nearly 40% of these individuals have competitive employment compared with about 15% for those with serious mental illness.

The strong focus of the disability community has been on the law, on their abilities, and on society’s obligation to provide the reasonable accommodations and supports for them to play meaningful roles, to fully contribute and connect in their families, neighborhoods, and larger communities.

But mental health is very different, right?

The ADA doesn’t apply to mental health, does it?

“We’re now on the cusp of expanding what we understand to be a disability to include those invisible disabilities, the ones we can’t necessarily accommodate with a curb cut.” These are the words of Representative Patrick Kennedy, a front runner in leadership characterized by sharing his own mental health lived experience.

If we weren’t crystal clear in 1990 that the ADA also applied to mental health, the Olmstead Supreme Court ruling eliminated any doubts. Actually, I’m going to start instead naming this watershed ruling for its plaintiff, the Lois Curtis decision, after her Georgia lawsuit that went to the highest court (Olmstead was the state health commissioner and defendant).

On June 22, 1999, the US Supreme Court held that unjustified segregation of persons with disabilities constitutes discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and stated that people with psychiatric disabilities are legally entitled to live in communities of their choosing.

If you are a person with Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, or Major Depression, a history of trauma or debilitating anxiety, a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, or other serious mental illness challenge, I’ve got three questions for you.

  • What if… I don’t move to the back of the bus? What if I reject society’s expectations of disability and dependency?
  • What if… I’m not afraid? What if I dare think of hopes and aspirations? What am I good at? How might I contribute?
  • What if… my answer is Yes, I can.

There will be challenges. Recovery doesn’t mean society suddenly accepted Sammy Davis, Jr. It doesn’t mean a Hillary Clinton presidency would dramatically change the proportion of female CEOs. It doesn’t mean a person in a wheelchair can suddenly walk.

It means we dream. And, we take actions to achieve our goals. We connect. We contribute. We participate fully in this incredible American family. We chart a course for others to gain courage and follow.

I am still moved by Representative Kennedy’s assertion that it’s time to end mental health promotion and shift our efforts to enforcing the law. “We stand on the doorstep to make momentous progress in advancing the cause of this new civil rights struggle started by the work of President Kennedy over 50 years ago.”

Yesterday, North Carolina-based Trillium Health Resources hosted a Recovery Summit in partnership with RI International (formerly Recovery Innovations). RI employs more than 500 peers, many of whom also have experience with addiction and/or homelessness in addition to mental health challenges.

They work as peer supports, wellness coaches, crisis navigators and make a difference in the lives of countless others.

And, today, I had the privilege to participate in a White House afternoon forum on Better Healthcare, which for the first time included a panel of peer leaders, and the discussion was about strengths and abilities instead of deficits and problems, and “lived expertise.”

It all depends on how we collectively answer the three questions. This is just another day, September 30 and the last day of recovery month. Or… it’s time everyone embrace recovery for mental health.

Something that sings in my blood

Is telling me

Yes, I can

#RecoveryNow

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