I recently read Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s book “My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey”. The book is an autobiography in which Dr. Taylor gives a first-hand description of her arteriovenous malformation: a rare form of hemorrhagic stroke that rendered the left hand side of her brain completely useless. Dr. Taylor describes her experience of being completely right side dominant, and then continues to describe her journey to complete recovery (an inspiring and accessible read for any of those looking for a new book!).
*Please bear with me as I “nerd-out” a little because I find this stuff totally fascinating*
The left hand sides of our brains are our logic centres, our organizers, and according to Dr. Taylor, is the home of our “brain chatter”, i.e. our inner-critic. The left is the voice inside our head that pops up and pulls us out of the present moment to think about the future. It thinks in terms of details, process, and is the home of our language centre. We live in a society that thinks in terms of “I” rather than “we” and our left brain is responsible for defining us as individuals. It will come as no surprise, then, that the vast majority of us are left-side dominant.
Our right brains, however, are responsible for sensory information, feelings, and encourage us to think in creative ways. To our right-brain, the place to be is right here, right now. Again, in Dr. Taylor’s words, “By its design, our right mind is spontaneous, carefree, and imaginative. It allows our artistic juices to flow freely without inhibition or judgment.” Our right hand side sees the big picture, and is the home of our intuition and our dream centres.
There is rawness about people with intellectual disabilities. When they find themselves in an emotional situation, there is zero shame about being in that place authentically. Forget gender expectations, forget societal messages around expressing our emotions wholeheartedly, people with disabilities are always real, and are always willing to be vulnerable. My guess then, connected to Dr. Taylor’s research, is that many people with intellectual disabilities “live on the right”, i.e. are right-side dominant causing them to thrive in a creative spaces, be exceptional readers of emotion, and be deeply connected to their own hearts.
A lot of the lessons I’ve learned from people with disabilities this year are connected to this piece of being inspired by their ability to “live on the right”. There is one particular core member in our community who is his own biggest fan. He has taught me that I am a “wow”, regardless of what other people say about me, and that I deserve to be celebrated every single day just for being myself. There is another core member who is an incredible dancer. If you put music on for her, fast or slow, happy or sad, she can channel the emotion of the music immediately and step into completely uninhibited expression. She would be willing to dance in front of a crowd and blow people away even if she was hearing the song for the first time. Both these individuals teach me about expectation, who we define as “able” in our society, and about the healing powers of creative expression.
Not only this, but I find that people with disabilities are incredibly powerful catalysts of expression due to their ability to create judgment-free spaces. There is nowhere I’ve felt safer than painting next to or dancing with one of our artists and prior to this experience I NEVER would’ve described myself as a painter or a dancer. I often share with people that I could draw a single line on a piece of paper and have someone turn to me and tell me how beautiful it is with complete authenticity…now how incredible of a gift is that!?
Our culture has lost touch with the power of us being in judgment-free spaces. When was the last time you truly felt welcomed to be your wacky, beautiful, authentic self? When was the last time you were creative without your inner-critic visiting you? I know that prior to this experience in community, not a lot of examples leap forward for me. That is the gift of the individuals that I have met this year and that, to me, is the meaning of our folks being described as our greatest teachers. Through being with them, creating with them, and fostering relationships with them, they teach us the profound lesson that unconditional love and dismissal of judgment is the only way to live.
In January I read an open letter written by John Stevens, a man with Down syndrome who decided to respond to Ann Coulter’s use of the R-word on social media (here’s the link, it’s an inspiring one: https://specialolympicsblog.wordpress.com/2012/10/23/an-open-letter-to-ann-coulter/). What stands out to me in this letter is the following sentence:
“Well, Ms. Coulter, you, and society, need to learn that being compared to people like me should be considered a badge of honour. No one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much.”
This is one of the most profound lessons that I am taking away from this Fellowship. I’ve been an athlete, I’ve been privileged to have an amazing university education, I have a loving family and a kick ass support system, I’ve travelled, I’m independent, but I do not love life the way that people with intellectual disabilities do. I have never experienced uninhibited joy the way they do, or laughed the way they do, or created the way they do. So who then is “able”? Because I’ll bet that the people in our community are living life more fully than most of us, and I will never stop believing in their capacity to teach us, to demonstrate that a life of “living on the right” is worth embracing, and to show us that who we are, even in our most raw, vulnerable moments, is completely perfect.