Laura Hershey: Writer, Poet, Activist, Consultant Rotating Header Image

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Disability and Poetry

I had a lucky opportunity on July 18 to read about 30 minutes’ worth of my poetry to around 1000 members of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD). As the keynote speaker at the annual AHEAD conference in Reno, Nevada, I could have lectured these college and university service providers about advocacy methods, or the equation of access with inclusiveness, or the importance of empowering our nation’s younger disabled generation — all subjects about which I care passionately. Instead, I chose to share my poems — a few old ones, mostly new ones. The response from the audience was gratifying. Poetry, I think, can reach past practice, through theory, beyond belief; poetry can touch a deeper place in people’s consciousness, resonating with the felt truth of detail, the tasty messy stuff of lived experience. It’s sensual, not conceptual.

Some of my poetry addresses themes related to disability. In a rather stimulating twist of irony, on the evening before my reading, I joined other AHEAD conference attendees in an outing to the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival. We saw an outstanding production of Richard III, featuring one of the great disabled villains of all time.

Voicing the words Shakespeare put in his mouth, the character of Richard attributes his evil nature largely to his congenital physical impairment, which he describes as follows:

I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them…

I love the Bard of Avon, but I have a much different take on the disabled body. During my presentation, I read a poem I wrote several years ago, called “Monster Body.” The poem begins with an acknowledgment of the cultural perceptions of disability, spanning the centuries from Shakespeare’s Richard III to Shelley’s Frankenstein:

I mock the human form
My back, shell-sharp curve, my thin wrist bone
Limbs that do not twitch beyond the digits
Illustrate terror, the randomness of damage

But by the end of the poem, the experience of living inside disability has been reclaimed and celebrated:

I take this shape, my body
Monster body mine
By my body I journey,
I learn, I love.
It is my lens, my light.

(A few samples of my poetry are online at http://www.cripcommentary.com/poetry.html .)

Gas Prices and Home Care

I’ve been working with a health care union to try to improve compensation for home care workers, and to enable such workers to organize themselves to have a voice in public policymaking. I’m concerned that people who are doing such important jobs, providing services that are essential to the well-being and independence of disabled and older people, earn such low pay and receive few or no benefits. They support our health, and they often cannot get health care for themselves or their children.

Now rising gas prices are putting even more pressure on home care workers, and causing reductions in needed services. According to an article in Saturday’s New York Times, a recent survey by the National Association for Home Care and Hospice concluded that home health and hospice workers drove 4.8 billion miles in 2006 to serve 12 million clients. These low-paid workers are not usually reimbursed for mileage.

I’ve known home health aides who had to borrow money just to buy enough fuel to get to work. Now that problem is growing, nationwide.

Not only do high gas prices hurt workers; this phenomenon also further escalates our country’s institutional bias. Nursing facilities gain yet another competitive advantage over home care: Facilities can offer employees eight-hour shifts in one location, in contrast to the multiple trips that may be involved in home care workers’ schedules.

State and federal Medicaid officials should recognize this, and level the playing field by factoring travel costs into reimbursement rates.