Facing My Panic Monster

In support of National Mental Health Week, and being inspired by my friend Kama’s honest and beautifully written account of her experience with depression (http://www.mothering.com/articles/my-depression-the-part-below-the-waters-surface/), I have decided to share my personal experience with anxiety and panic. I am acutely aware that mental illness is incredibly stigmatized in our society. While so many of us (and maybe all of us, to some degree or another) struggle with our mental health, we don’t talk about it enough. We don’t share our personal experiences, but we keep silent. This stigma is real, and creates shame. Shame that something is wrong with us, that we aren’t good enough, that we aren’t successful. In my opinion, this societal stigma and resulting personal shame is truly what should be called an ‘illness’, and needs to change. Societal stigma is really what makes us ‘sicker’, what drives us to the edge or tragically, sometimes over the edge.

So, I’m taking a deep breath and sharing my story. Because I want to break this stigma. Because I want to help in any way I can, to make others feel less alone in their own struggles with mental health. Because I want the conversation to be opened and shame to be lifted.

My first panic attack felt like it came out of nowhere. It leapt up from behind me, and took everything away from me, within a span of 10 minutes. I had worked hard my whole life, chasing goal after goal, to get to this point in my life – a great job, a happy relationship, an awesome group of friends. This was 12 years ago (before kids), and people would describe me as ‘type A’. I was a high achiever, worked all the time, loved my job (so was happy to work all the time), and while admittedly ‘tightly wound’ and had trouble relaxing, I didn’t feel that I needed to relax when I had so many projects on the go and so much to accomplish. I was presenting at a conference, and really excited about my workshop and speaking to others about a new framework for working with volunteers from a community development perspective. I was showing up under personal stress, as my father had just had a major heart attack on an airplane and was in a hospital in Vancouver, far away from where I was in Kingston. I remember calling my father and speaking with him, worried about his life, from the conference hotel in Kingston. But I pushed my worry feelings for my father away (or deep down), so I could be on my ‘A game’ in presenting an amazing, inspiring session at the conference. I practiced my session, getting ready for my moment to inspire change.

The session began, and I started to speak. I had been waiting for this moment. But as I started to speak, I immediately like I was about to faint, that my knees were buckling out from under me. I felt sweat under my arms, like I was so unbelievably hot. And then the strangest and scariest part happened, where I felt like I left my body, like I was watching myself, a different self, facilitate this session. I was having a breakdown. I don’t how or why, but no one noticed and I actually got through the session (with pretty positive reviews). But I left the session feeling incredibly afraid about what happened, and utterly exhausted from keeping myself together. I went back to my room, closed the door, fell on my bed and sobbed.

This was the beginning of a private hell that I experienced for 2 years. The only person who knew what I was going through at the time was my amazing and supportive wife. I came back to my home and life, and I continued to have uncontrollable panic attacks. I was volunteering at the United Way, and I went to a session where we had to go around and introduce ourselves, and I had the same sensation, of pure physical terror when it was my turn to speak. My job was doing a lot of public speaking, and I was miserable every day, anticipating when this would happen next. It happened when I drove my car, and my greatest fear was that I would faint behind the wheel, and kill myself and others. I couldn’t predict when I would have these feelings, this physically terror that would leap up and grab me. It continued to show up out of nowhere, choking me with its power. And the fear of when this might happen next was constantly on my mind, weighing me down. The fear of the panic attack became larger and more powerful than the panic attack itself, to the point where I couldn’t differentiate between my panic reacting to the fear or to a certain situation. It felt like a miserable, never-ending vicious cycle. The fear spiraled into shame, and I was convinced that I was ‘going crazy’.

As the Type-A personality that I am, I decided to attack this problem like any other problem that I have faced in my life. I was determined that there was a solution, and that I was going to find the solution. I read every book and article possible about anxiety, and I recognized that what I was experiencing was called a ‘Panic Disorder’, different from generalized anxiety. I created my own version of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), determined that this would not ruin my life. I drove back and forth across the Gardiner, with the windows open so I could breathe, to prove to myself that I wouldn’t faint and that I could drive. I continued to put myself in stressful situations so I had to face my monster, again and again. I learned how to do a body scan meditation and I practiced breathing every evening.

But truthfully, none of these strategies really worked. I was angry with my condition, and I wanted it gone. I was working incredibly hard to get rid of it, to fix myself so I could move forward. I split myself into two – the part of me from before my panic attacks that I approved of, and then this newer part of me that felt uncomfortable, uncontrollable and scary, and I wanted gone. After much internal fight and pain, I decided that I needed professional help. I was at a loss in terms of helping myself. I found myself a wonderful therapist, where the first 6 months was spent with me just crying in her chair. I was holding so much shame. And then we started to talk, and over time, she helped me to accept myself and my panic. Through acceptance, she taught me to face my fear. Most importantly, she taught me to be gentle with myself, with all parts of myself. The irony of it is was that my panic attacks only started to subside when I truly accepted this part of me, without judgement and without shame.

My story doesn’t wrap up like a present with a nicely tied bow. Mental health is a continuum, and we all have good days and bad days, good moments and bad moments. We live in a highly stressful society, with not enough time for self-care and not enough focus put on our personal or communal mental/emotional health. I continue to struggle with anxiety and I have had panic attacks from time to time. However, they are less intense than before, and I am better at taking care of myself during those moments. I have learned how to check in with myself on how I am doing, on a daily, or sometimes hourly basis. I have found self-care strategies that work best for me – my top strategy being to run to the beach as fast as I can, so my adrenalin is physically released, and the waves of the water can remind me to breathe. Most importantly, I remind myself to let go of judgement and shame, be kind and gentle, and love all facets of myself unconditionally, including my panic.

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Connecting Across Difference – My Answer to the Question: ‘What Do We Do Now?’

We’re coming up to 2 weeks since the American Presidential Election, when Donald Trump was elected on Nov 8th 2016. I, like so many others, are still walking around in shock, disbelief and in a state of sadness. My sadness comes from the realization that there are so many people out there who are racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, and quite frankly, mean. For me, the election of Donald Trump has taught me a difficult lesson: that I live in a lefty bubble, I have lived in this bubble for pretty much my whole life, and that bubble has now burst.

And at the 2 week mark, my question is: what do I do now? I have seriously contemplated hiding under a rock (with my guitar of course), and pretending this world out there doesn’t exist. But that doesn’t seem sustainable or hopeful. I think we are all asking this question: what do we do now? For those of us who have been committed to social justice work for many years, this political reality can feel so discouraging and exhausting. We thought we had made progress but it feels like we have taken a giant step backwards. So utterly discouraging.

In the midst of this despair, reading Facebook articles and disturbing acts of racism that are becoming normalized, I have been kept afloat by an article that has given me inspiration during these dark times. The article ‘The White Flight of Derek Black’, by the Washington Post (which I read just before Nov 8th) is such a powerful story of the power of connection and dialogue to create positive change in our society. The full article is here. Briefly, Derek Black was born into a family of prominent white supremacists and was completely indoctrinated into this ideology of white nationalism. He went to New College of Florida, a liberal arts college, and students found out that he was a racist. While most of the lefty students ostracized Derek Black, a Jewish student by the name of Matthew Stephenson, decided to invite Derek Black to his weekly Shabbat suppers. This was after knowing that Derek Black had written extremely anti-semetic statements on his Stormfront website, such as ‘Jews worm their way into power. They must go.’ and ‘Jews are NOT white.’ To make a long story short (and I highly encourage you to read the full article – it is an amazing story!), Derek Black becomes part of Matthew Stephenson’s Shabbat community, and they build a relationship that is strong enough to start to honestly dialogue about his viewpoints. Derek begins to question his views, and in the end, he publicly denounces the white nationalist movement.

The article is very focused on the story of Derek Black, which is a fascinating story. But I have been thinking a lot about Matthew Stephenson, who is only featured briefly in the story. In my opinion, Matthew Stephenson is an unsung hero, and I am inspired by his bravery, to consciously invite someone who is publicly anti-Semitic to his Shabbat supper table. He extends a hand and expresses love, to someone who hates him (or fears him). And that connection changed the trajectory of Derek Black’s life in such a profound (and positive) way.

I wonder what gave Matthew Stephenson the bravery to make this critical choice, to invite Derek Black to his supper table. Could I make that choice, to invite someone who hated me (or feared me) to break bread together? How many times have I done this – consciously reached out to connect with someone who doesn’t share my lefty politics, my anti-oppressive practice, my enthusiasm for social justice? I sheepishly have to say, never. I do the opposite – become defensive and angry, turn away, create a barrier, and encircle myself with ‘my people’, those who share my views. But what could life look like, if I was open to real, difficult dialogue?

Maybe change can happen for the good, through connecting across difference and engaging in honest and authentic dialogue. By that, I don’t mean fights on Facebook, but I mean breaking bread with people who are different from us, in their viewpoints and policy perspectives. By authentic dialogue, I mean staying in the conversation even when it gets tough and feels painful, listening with an openness that allows space for silence instead of constant rebuttal. Dialogue instead of debate.

I think there are so many valid responses to the messed up society we are living in right now, and I don’t want this post to invalidate anyone else’s response. We have a right to our anger, and there is a lot to be angry about right now. But for me, in terms of where I’m at, I am putting my ‘eggs into the basket’ of connection and dialogue, where I believe there is potential for fundamental, radical change. If Derek Black could change his perspective and denounce white supremacy because of Shabbat suppers, then I believe there is hope for widespread change.

P.S: I need to do a shoutout to the amazing Colour Code Podcast about race in Canada, by Denise Balkisoon and Hannah Sung. It is through listening to this podcast that I was introduced to the Derek Black article, and I am thankful for this! If you haven’t listened to Colour Code yet, it is amazing, and so important that we openly talk about these issues.

 

Sharing My Authentic Self

I embarked on this year of teaching with the goal that I want to be the best teacher that I can be. I spent some time reflecting on last years teaching experience, as well as reading and thinking over the summer on what teaching really is all about. As I was thinking about this, I came across an amazing article that struck a chord with me, “Spirit Guides” written by William Deresiewicz – see here (and thanks Ann, for sharing!).

“… students gravitate toward teachers with whom they have forged a connection. Learning is an emotional experience, and mentorship is rooted in the intimacy of intellectual exchange. Something important passes between you, something almost sacred.”

And I realized that while I am strong in teaching with academic rigour (challenging students to think critically and question assumptions, engaging with small group discussion and experiential exercises etc), I have left my real self at the door. And I cannot reach that sacred connection when I am not being real. I have been too focused on the content, the end result, the outcome of assignments and evaluations as proof of learning, and not focused enough on the process.

So, in the spirit of sharing my authentic self with my students, I have started out by taking two scary but wonderful actions over the past two weeks:

1. I sang for our student orientation.

Many people know that I love to sing, and there have been years in my life when you would rarely see me without my guitar. Singing is my authentic self. We were organizing for our new student orientation, and the suggestion came forward that I could sing (thanks Marilyn!). At first, I said an immediate no, as it felt ‘out-of-the-box’ and out of my comfort zone. However, I changed my mind and decided to go for it. I decided to sing the song “I Hope You Dance” (by Lee Ann Womack), which is about the importance of taking risks in life. It was captured on video, so here it is – http://youtu.be/ja7JqvTu7Z4.

Two small but amazing things came out of this. First, it inspired my colleagues to join in with their singing, and this was a fun and bonding moment. Second, it created an instant connection with my students. When I walked into my classes for the first time this week, they all commented on hearing my singing, and saying they were ready to dance. It set the stage for a creative and authentic teaching-learning connection right away!

2. I came out.

I have been out and proud for over 20 years and yet I felt incredibly stressed about coming out to my students. During this first week of lots of stressful situations to deal with, this stress outweighed everything else. It kept me up at night, as I replayed how I would say it. I didn’t tell anyone that I was going to come out, because I didn’t want anyone to question why it was important. Before my classes, I questioned myself – do I really need to do this? Does it matter? But I knew deep down, even though I was afraid, that this was incredibly important. The reason is simple: I am married to a woman, and my gay family is such a HUGE part of my day-to-day life, that if I can’t share this, then I cannot be authentic. Last year, I taught my students and never came out. I thought that I shouldn’t need to, that my personal life has nothing to do with my teaching. But, much to my dismay, I realized that I was closeting myself by censoring the words I used when I spoke about what I did on the weekend. And I shocked myself, when one student asked me about ‘my husband’, I didn’t correct him. Self-censoring how I speak about my life and my personal experience is as far away from being authentic as I can get.

What was I afraid of, before I came out? Not being liked by my students. Being judged and treated differently because of homophobia. Not being accepted. But I knew that I had to do it, for myself, and for any of my students who are gay and feel alone in the classroom. I knew there wasn’t a choice.

I did it in my ‘let me tell you a bit about myself’ beginning of the class. I spoke about my work experience, then when I am not working, I am singing or with my family. I shared that I was a ‘little famous’ because of my alternative family, and that my claim to fame (true story) is that Oprah’s producers called me to explore the possibility of our family coming on the Oprah show (in the end, they didn’t accept us, which was very disappointing, especially for my wife…). And what happened? No big reaction from the students, at least not in class. Some clear smiles from students, who felt happy that I shared this. And for me, a big weight was lifted off my shoulders, knowing that when my students ask me what I did on the weekend, I won’t need to self-censor and speak without using pronouns. I felt a deep sense of calm, knowing that I have taken small steps towards my goal of sharing my authentic self and forging that sacred connection with my students.

Teaching the Power Flower

This has been a disturbing month for racialized killings. Michael Brown, a Black teenager who was unarmed with his hands up, was shot and killed in Ferguson Missouri. Tina Fontaine, a 15-year old First Nations teenager, was mutilated and killed in Winnipeg. There is no denying that both of these deaths are intricately linked with deep, very real and very disturbing racism. As Andre Picard wrote in the Globe and Mail, “If non-native women were dying and disappearing at a proportionally similar rate, the number would exceed 20,000”. And it is well documented that young black men are stopped and carded by police at a much higher rate than the rest of the population.  Amidst all of this, the most pointed comment that I read recently on Facebook was someone who wrote “the white people on my feed are all Robin Williams and the black/brown people are all Ferguson”. This comment stopped me in my tracks, because it is so true. And whether we like it or not, we are very much influenced by what messages and articles that we receive (or don’t receive) through our Facebook feeds (or Twitter for that matter). And racism is continues to be a conversation that primarily takes place within racialized communities.

I don’t think that is any different from the other ‘isms’. Homophobia is primarily discussed by those of us who experience it, sexism, ableism etc. Let’s be honest – when is the last time that we able-bodied individuals have talked about our privilege and the barriers that exist for people who aren’t able-bodied? However, all ‘ism’s’ can’t be rated the same. Let’s be real. When you are killed for being a young Black man out of your home after the sun goes down, then racism trumps the other isms. I think death trumps all of the other consequences of discrimination: being poor, denied a job promotion, laughed at, treated badly, social isolation etc.

Why don’t we openly talk about the ‘isms’ (except the ones that affect us personally)? Is it because we are afraid to confront our own privilege, the gains we implicitly make (whether we want these gains or not) because we’re on the winning side of the coin? Is it because we feel guilty, or we worry that we will offend? We don’t talk about privilege, because the defining factor of privilege is that it is invisible (unless we consciously expose it) so we don’t have to acknowledge this as a critical factor in our success Privilege is only maintained when it stays invisible, and those who benefit from privilege deny its power.

Amidst all of this, I am getting ready to teach my college class. For one of my classes, I facilitate the Power Flower exercise with my students, which introduces the concepts of power and privilege and personally mapping your own social factors of identity with levels of power. Students are given a flower, and they identify ‘social/identity factors’ that exist in society where some people hold power and some do not (for example – race, gender, age etc). In the exercise, the students work in small groups to identify for each ‘petal of power’, who has the most power and they write that down in the inner petal (for example – for gender – men, for race – white, etc). Then I ask them to locate themselves on the flower privately (because some of this is very personal and they may not be comfortable to share – for example, sexual orientation, class etc). We then talk about power and privilege in society and I teach about how that impacts on peoples access (or lack of access) to opportunities, resources and engagement in society. I give lots of examples and statistics about how power and privilege is played out again and again, how power positions (government, business CEOs etc) are 99% white males, and how the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.

I remember doing the Power Flower in my first year of university, and it was transformative in challenging me to acknowledge and recognize my privilege, so that I could be able to work for social change and social justice. This exercise, along with reading the “Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” article by Peggy McIntosh, fundamentally transformed my perspective. I continued to actively confront my privilege as I discovered the amazing writing of anti-racist, feminist writers – Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde, Dionne Brand, Beth Brant, and Himani Bannerji. These writers, and others, carried me through my undergrad and graduate studies, constantly challenging me to confront my privilege as a white, able-bodied, (relatively) economically secure woman.

However, my college class is filled with students who ‘rate low’ on the power flower – most of my students are non-white, English is their second language, low-income, juggling family responsibilities, and many struggling with health and mental health issues. While it is critical for students to understand the concepts of power and privilege and social location, I worry about the underlying message. My experience of doing the Power Flower was realizing my privilege, and this understanding is core to my how I approach my work and my daily life. However, I wonder about the students who do the Power Flower and realize that they have very little power in society. Does this make them angry, and motivate them to work for change? Or does my emphasis on power in society mean that they feel more powerless and not able to change their situation?

And the question always inevitably comes up: What about Oprah? Oprah Winfrey would rate low on the power flower before she became famous – she is a Black woman and grew up dirt poor in terrible family circumstances. Oprah beat the odds, and is now the richest, most powerful woman in the world. Oprah also tells a different story, starting with her own personal life. Her story is that you can beat the odds, live your best life, and she continuously has examples of individuals who are amazing in triumphing over their struggles. I worry about this story too – that it is ‘pie in the sky’ and individualistic, that Oprah-esque/The Secret “If you try hard enough, you can be anyone and accomplish your dreams”.

Where is the middle ground? How will I approach teaching the Power Flower this semester? I think that I need to be upfront with my students the next time that I teach this, to show the different perspectives, and to give examples of how they can beat the odds and triumph. I think I need to be open and honest about my own personal perspective and my relationship with the power flower based on my position of privilege. This is a very personal story. While I believe it is critical for all of my students to understand the concepts of social location and power and privilege, I don’t want this to dampen their spirits or take their autonomy away. I want them to walk away from the lesson knowing that they, and we all, have the potential to be agents of change.

Struggling with silence …

One day during the holidays, I had a disturbing incident that I’ve been grappling with ever since…

I went for a walk down the street with my father-in-law and my 2-year old to the local cheese store, to buy cheese for our lunch. We walked into the store and as my father-in-law picked out his cheese, the man at the counter said to me: “Wow, you have a really cute boy.” I said ‘thanks’ and then he proceeded to say…: “You made such a good looking child, I would sponsor you to make more children, and I’ll give them a job when they grow up. It’s always the Indians on my street who make so many ugly children, 6 or 8 children, and they aren’t good-looking like your child is.” But that wasn’t the disturbing part. The disturbing part is what happened next, which is that I … said nothing. I became uncomfortable, looked at the ground, my father-in-law quick bought his cheese, and we left the store.

I can make all of the excuses in the world about why I didn’t speak out against such explicit racism – I was tired, I was stressed, I didn’t want to make a scene in front of my father-in-law etc etc. But that doesn’t excuse my silence or change what happened. I did call the cheese store that evening and make a complaint. But that’s not good enough. I should have spoke up. I wish I spoke up. I feel ashamed. I have gone over in my head, again and again, what I should have said – clear, assertive language, naming the racism and letting him know that I won’t shop there.

I don’t think its productive for me to get swallowed up in guilt and shame. What I think is productive is to pose the question: why? Why was I silent? Why, as someone who is well versed in anti-oppression and anti-colonialist thought, who cares deeply about social justice, who teaches about racism and power and privilege at a community college, was I silent? There is a clear disconnect between my values and my day-to-day actions.

What is this disconnect about? How do I change this? And other questions: would I have been silent if he was homophobic instead of racist? I think the answer is yes. Have I ever directly spoken out against racism/discrimination/sexism/homophobia etc (not in a ‘rally/protest’ kind of way, but in a ‘naming someone’s behaviour’ directly kind of way)? The answer is yes actually (thank god!), but usually not spontaneously. Usually, its a conversation that I initiated, and had thought about and rehearsed in my head beforehand. And these conversations generally haven’t been easy and sometimes, haven’t turned out the way I want (which in my rosy world would be for the person to listen, not get defensive and change their viewpoint/behaviour…).

In grappling with this, I reread Audre Lorde’s piece “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”, which has been very helpful for me in thinking through this (see here – http://shrinkingphallus.wordpress.com/the-transformation-of-silence-into-language-and-action-by-audre-lorde/). She writes about the emotion of fear – fear of being ostracized, fear of a fight, fear of the unknown. When we are silent, we have let fear win over authenticity and truth. As Lorde writes:

“We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”

This resonates for me on a very personal level, because I have worked through the emotion of ‘tired’. I truly used to be afraid of ‘tired’ on a daily basis, and now I’m not. This work needs to be done for ‘fear’, which may be trickier because it comes up sporadically, whereas I faced ‘tired’ every day when I first became a parent (and continue to face it every day). I think some of this work needs to be connected to mindfulness work – in the mindfulness literature, there is a differentiation between reacting versus responding – reacting being unconscious and automatic versus responding being conscious and reflective in action. I was clearly reactive in the cheese store – I felt embarrassed and just wanted to hide my head and leave as quickly as possible. I didn’t respond consciously or reflectively. I feel like this mindfulness work is critical to changing our actions, so we are present in all of our day-to-day actions, confronting incidents that make us uncomfortable and afraid. In my mind, no amount of anti-oppressive literature can prepare us for day-to-day action, when our values don’t connect with our behaviour, and when our behaviour is reactive.

To end with another one of my favourite Audre Lorde quotes, that I want to keep remembering every day:

“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

I want to dare to be powerful.

Rob Ford does an excellent job in community engagement…

Don’t worry – I am not a Rob Ford supporter at all, and I am as shocked as the rest of you that he is still in office. However, amidst all of the controversy, this Toronto Star article on why low income supporters support him definitely caught my attention –  http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2013/12/06/rob_ford_lowincome_supporters_stand_by_their_mayor.html. I think this is a must read if we’re going to seriously strategize about changing the voting patterns in Toronto, and getting someone decent, who cares about people and social justice into office. What this article tells me is:

-Policies and politics are too far removed from the day-to-day life of many low-income people to matter. Education on civics is needed at the grassroots level for sure, but more than that, showing people the connection between their personal life and the policies that get passed at City Hall is critical.  Why are you poor, when others are not? What policies or lack of policies has caused you to be in this situation of broken down housing and social isolation? This conversation needs to start happening at the grassroots level, through community leadership, at the bbqs and through the youth centers etc. 

-Community based actions speak louder than words. It doesn’t matter what Rob Ford has said or reported to have said, he has showed community based action, in terms of fixing a wall or putting in a new playground. It doesn’t seem to matter that he voted to reduce social housing despite the years-long waiting list and clear dire need, but at the community level, Rob Ford is seen to respond to community calls for help. 

-Despite the fact that Fords rally to reduce taxes was aimed at the middle to higher income group, lower-income individuals are also enthralled with the idea of paying less tax. In my opinion, the tax system is a reflection of our communal values, and taxes provide a critical social safety net. However, on a personal level, it seems that most people want more money and don’t want to pay more taxes. I don’t think this perspective is only held within lower-income communities. I personally know several left-leaning friends who, while they vote left and believe in social justice, they still look for ways to get out of paying taxes. How do we change this?

-He speaks the ‘community talk’ – “He said to me that it only takes one person to make a difference in the community, and when he looks at me, he can see I’m going to be that person,” she recalls proudly. While we may talk this talk in our CD circles, how often do we say it to people when it really matters? Are we empowering enough? These community members feel empowered through Rob Fords words.

I think we need to seriously look at what Rob Ford has been doing right, and how he has strategically captured the votes of so many people, especially within the lower-income communities in the inner suberbs. If we don’t, we risk a repeat performance on voting day, and another 4 years with Mr. Ford.  

 

International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Today, December 3rd, is recognized by the UN and around the world as the “International Day of Persons with Disabilities”, and in that spirit, I want to share two examples of community based projects that I think are amazing, by breaking down barriers – both physical and attitudinal barriers. Both of these projects have inspired me:

1. The StopGap project – Luke Anderson, who is an engineer by trade and in a wheelchair, started making these cool ramps because he was frustrated by the inaccessibility of so many places in the city. He now has an army of volunteers and is giving out these ramps for free to businesses, so they can be accessible – see the StopGap website here – http://stopgapblog.blogspot.ca/. I love especially love this project for a few reasons: 1. It’s Toronto-based so I get the pleasure of looking out for and seeing these bright StopGap ramps in my city!, 2. It shows that a small piece of wood has the power to change our behaviors and connection to place – accessibility means that people make different shopping choices and may interact different with others in our community. and 3. Luke Anderson has not trademarked his ramp and is not trying to make money from his initiative. On the contrary, he provides a very detailed handbook on his website with instruction on how to build the ramps, as well as how to connect with businesses and recruit volunteers, so you can start this in your own community.

2. DanceAbility – http://www.danceability.com/index.php. I have a personal connection to this project, as I used to do Contact Improv and through that, participated in some DanceAbility workshops. I am not a very physically coordinated individual but I have always loved dance – not to perform but to experience it. Contact Improv really pushed me out of my head and into my body, and profoundly changed me in how I live in my body in this world. DanceAbility is about promoting dance for all people, regardless of ability or disability, and through this openness, danceAbility performances challenge unspoken societal perceptions of what people with disabilities should look like or should be doing or not doing. See this amazing video to see what I mean – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNS106c8iXw. Most of our interaction with others is through words – verbal, and now more and more, through written communication. DanceAbility provides a space for community interaction on a profound and transformative level, through bodies moving and communicating through dance.