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


Poem: “Adopting a Fourteen-Year-Old in the 21st Century”

Adopting a Fourteen-Year-Old in the 21st Century

Teenage girls hate difference, and their mothers.
They want concave bellies, current fashion,
and to fit in. That was my fear, and her other
mom’s: that she might despise our dyke passion,
our wheelchairs, Robin’s speech, my respirator,
or her own awkward tender girl body.
Would the pride we’d model vaccinate her
against surface standards? But she came ready.
She wears mismatched florals, ignores trends,
has bold prints and slogans in her wardrobes.
She brags and introduces us to friends,
oblivious to ableists and homophobes.
She’s nonconformist, even more than us.
“There’s my moms!” she tells the kid beside her on the bus.

Copyright 2010 by Laura Hershey

Laura’s Labor Day Weekend Column

Labor Day means different things to different people.

The Labor Day Telethon

For me, it’s hard (try as I might) to escape the association between Labor Day and the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon. Though it’s been several years since we’ve organized a direct action protest, the Internet continues to provide us with opportunities to educate and inoculate people against the Telethon’s pity paradigm.

The Internet also provides us with more evidence of the hypocrisy of a man who claims to be a “humanitarian” (and of a shallow showbiz industry that validated that title with a 2008 “Humanitarian Oscar Award.”) During a recent interview on Inside Edition, Jerry Lewis avowed that he would punish Lindsay Lohan physically for her recent transgressions. “I’d smack her in the mouth if I saw her. I would smack her in the mouth and be arrested for abusing a woman! I would say, ‘You deserve this and nothing else’ — whack! And then if she’s not satisfied, I’d put her over my knee and spank her.” If you want to torture yourself by watching it for yourself, here’s the video clip.

(Some people, perhaps tired of the media coverage of Lohan’s nonsense, seem to find Lewis’ statements funny. But my philosopher crip friend Joe Stramondo puts them in perspective: “Jerry Lewis again uses a narrative that masquerades violence/oppression as ‘help’ by obscuring it with pity. This time it’s women who he pities. So, I guess sexism and ableism have something in common for him.”

I would recommend avoiding Jerry Lewis and the Telethon altogether this weekend. For an edifying alternative, check out my friend Mike Ervin’s sassy response to the Telethon. He made a video called The Kids Are All Right (long before the current lesbian family dramedy), about the activist group Jerry’s Orphans.

By the way, check out the Denver Post on Tuesday for a spot-on column describing disability activists’ objections to the Telethon.

Labor Force Diversity (Including Disability)

This Labor Day, too many people are still jobless, and the situation is worse for people with disabilities. In August 2010, only 22 percent of people with disabilities were participating in the labor force, while 70.2 percent of non-disabled people were in the labor force. The unemployment rate for those with disabilities was 15.6 percent, compared with 9.3 percent for persons with no disability.

There are many complex reasons for this disparity. Certainly one reason are the negative attitudes that some employers and coworkers have toward people with disabilities. Even those who are not actively hostile to disabled folks may not have considered or understood the need to actively recruit, hire, and accommodate workers with disabilities.

To try to address the lack of awareness, the U.S. Department of Labor (which provided the above statistics) sponsors National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). This year, I have a direct role in this effort. A few lines of my poetry, along with a piece of my digital art, appear on the official poster for NDEAM. The poster is available for FREE to employers, advocacy organizations, schools, or anyone else who requests it. Even cooler, it’s available in eight languages, including Navajo and Lakota. Go to the DOL website at to order or download your poster(s). Did I mention they’re FREE?

Can a public awareness campaign like this make a real difference in improving disabled people’s employment prospects? Who knows? But I think the poster turned out beautifully, and I like the emphasis on disability as a part of diversity. I also know that the DOL under President Obama is being managed by some hard-working, progressive people, including Secretary Hilda Solis; and Kathy Martinez, Assistant Secretary for the Office of Disability Employment Policy.

(And I should probably add that my comments above about MDA and Jerry Lewis have no official government endorsement!)

Labor in Service of Independent Living

Labor Day celebrates workers, and my favorite workers are those who support people with disabilities in living in the community. Call them attendants, personal care assistants (PCAs), personal assistants (PAs), home health aides, helpers, even certified nurses’ aides (CNAs) – whatever you call them, they are crucial to the disability rights movement.

Good attendants do more than just enable a disabled person to live outside an institution. They allow us to live a life of maximum independence, functioning at our own personal best and working toward our life goals.

In just the past few months, here are just some of the ways that home care workers have made a huge difference for my health and/or independence and/or work:

  • Last week my wheelchair sip-and-puff mechanism started malfunctioning, to the point that I could not drive it. I had several important work meetings coming up in the following days, that I was afraid I would have to miss. My attendant Suzi figured out where the leak was, and fixed it temporarily until the right tube was restored. (On top of being an excellent PCA, Suzi is usually my fix-it person when the wheelchair repair company doesn’t return my phone calls!)
  • In August, I spent an amazing week in Los Angeles at the 2010 Lambda Literary Retreat (fondly called “queer writers’ camp”). Cara and Mallorie accompanied me, and they both did an extraordinary job of supporting me so I could get the most out of the opportunity. They creatively found and processed food I could eat safely. They worked hurried morning shifts and late-night shifts so I could attend workshops and social events. They gave me space and silence within which to write poetry, while making sure I got my physical needs met. When the airline misplaced one of my ventilators, they cut and taped an ill-fitting tube to make the other ventilator serve temporarily.
  • For nearly a year, Krista has shown up every weekday morning, as early as I need her to, enabling me to supervise my daughter in getting ready for school. Any instability in this schedule could be disastrous for my family. But unlike in some earlier years, these days I never go to bed worrying about a morning cancellation or no-show.

    All of my current attendants are great – highly competent, reliable, smart, cooperative, and calm amidst craziness. And I have enough experience under my belt to know how hard life can be when that’s not the case. (Attendant horror stories belong in another blog post.)

    Another whole column – or a whole book – could be devoted to discussing the labor rights, or lack thereof, of home care workers. Given what they do, they are for the most part underpaid, uninsured, and unsupported by society as a whole. They usually don’t get paid sick days or vacation days. In only a few states do they have union representation.

    So many entities make inflated profits by exploiting our disability-related needs. But the people doing the real, hard work that helps us live independently don’t get nearly enough. People with disabilities and our support workers need to organize together, to demand fairer policies and more resources for this work.

    For now, though, I’ll use Labor Day as a day to express my appreciation for these indispensable workers.

    The End of Summer

    Labor Day also represents the end of summer, if not officially, then at least traditionally. My most recent “Life Support” blog post for the Reeve Foundation website describes one of the highlights of my summer. Surf on over there and read “Roughing It, Accessibly, in a Colorado Yurt.” And while you’re there, check out the other great bloggers, articles, and information.

    From the Archives: Old Poem, “You Get Proud By Practicing”

    In honor of LGBT Pride Month — and to honor and encourage all kinds of people embracing the risks of visibility and pride — I decided to re-post a very old poem of mine. It remains a favorite of mine, and of lots of other people. It’s been reprinted in a number of places, most recently in an anthology called Fire in the Soul: 100 Poems for Human Rights. It speaks of the right to feel proud, and offers some exercises for achieving pride.


    Copyright 1991 by Laura Hershey

    If you are not proud
    for who you are, for what you say, for how you look;
    if every time you stop
    to think of yourself, you do not see yourself glowing
    with golden light; do not, therefore, give up on yourself.
    You can
    get proud.

    You do not need
    a better body, a purer spirit, or a Ph.D.
    to be proud.
    You do not need
    a lot of money, a handsome boyfriend, or a nice car.
    You do not need
    to be able to walk, or see, or hear,
    or use big, complicated words,
    or do any of the things that you just can’t do
    to be proud. A caseworker
    cannot make you proud,
    or a doctor.
    You only need
    more practice.
    You get proud
    by practicing.

    There are many many ways to get proud.
    You can try riding a horse, or skiing on one leg,
    or playing guitar,
    and do well or not so well,
    and be glad you tried
    either way.
    You can show
    something you’ve made
    to someone you respect
    and be happy with it no matter
    what they say.
    You can say
    what you think, though you know
    other people do not think the same way, and you can
    keep saying it, even if they tell you
    you are crazy.
    You can add your voice
    all night to the voices
    of a hundred and fifty others
    in a circle
    around a jailhouse
    where your brothers and sisters are being held
    for blocking buses with no lift,
    or you can be one of the ones
    inside the jailhouse,
    knowing of the circle outside.
    You can speak your love
    to a friend
    without fear.
    You can find someone
    who will listen to you
    without judging you or doubting you or being
    afraid of you
    and let you hear yourself perhaps
    for the first time.
    These are all ways
    of getting proud.
    None of them
    are easy, but all of them
    are possible. You can do all of these things,
    or just one of them again and again.
    You get proud
    by practicing.

    Power makes you proud, and power
    comes in many fine forms
    supple and rich as butterfly wings.
    It is music
    when you practice opening your mouth
    and liking what you hear
    because it is the sound of your own
    true voice.
    It is sunlight
    when you practice seeing
    strength and beauty in everyone
    including yourself.
    It is dance
    when you practice knowing
    that what you do
    and the way you do it
    is the right way for you
    and can’t be called wrong.
    All these hold
    more power than weapons or money
    or lies.
    All these practices bring power, and power
    makes you proud.
    You get proud
    by practicing.

    Remember, you weren’t the one
    who made you ashamed,
    but you are the one
    who can make you proud.
    Just practice,
    practice until you get proud, and once you are proud,
    keep practicing so you won’t forget.
    You get proud
    by practicing.

    By the way, if you would like to order a poetry chapbooks, audiotapes, or poster featuring this poem, “You Get Proud By Practicing,” you can email Laura at

    “Remembering Siesta Key”: A Poem of the Gulf

    Remembering Siesta Key

    Copyright 2010 by Laura Hershey

    Ten days each spring, we woke
    to the smell of salt water, seaweed,

    eggs my Dad fried in butter,
    and fresh orange pulped by Nana.

    Before ten a.m. we wore the scent
    of sun tan lotion, and tumbled out the door

    where the Gulf welcomed us with waves
    tendering gifts: conch shells, sand dollars,

    tiny clams which opened into pink hearts
    or angels’ wings spread for flight.

    On folding chairs and big beach towels
    we ate peanuts, cheese sandwiches, more oranges.

    We did homework — price of missing
    three days’ school — halfheartedly,

    equations and penciled solutions blurring
    amid glare on white pages.

    All day, from low to high tide, and back, we slid between
    land and sea, let the surf pound and pull at us,

    let the sun dizzy us, built castles
    of shovel-packed sand walls and drizzled spires

    with moats Dad dug deep enough
    for my dangling legs.

    Can I now, forty years later, grieve
    that same seawater? How many times since then

    has it evaporated, and fallen? How many hundreds
    of generations of mollusks and minnows

    have lived and died naturally between that beach
    and the sandbar we rafted to at low tide?

    In no sense are they mine to mourn —
    but neither can I claim innocence.

    The flights I board, my craving for cool air,
    all my habits of comfort and consumption

    learned on family vacations, loved
    for a lifetime, joined to billions of others’ hungers,

    led to drilling in that Gulf, a hole in its heart,
    to take what lay within.

    Now, I watch remote live feeds
    of unstoppable hemorrhage, technology

    helpless to reverse its own mistakes,
    dark plumes choking Gulf currents,

    and I grieve for fishing families, for endangered pelicans
    and bluefin, for eleven dead workingmen.

    But my soul aches for what I have not seen
    for many years, and what might be lost:

    long days on the beach, solving simple problems,
    dreading only the end of spring break, until next year.

    My First Effort at Making a Poetry Movie: “A Call to Arms”

    I just learned about, and then learned how to use, Windows MovieMaker. Below is my first artistic effort at creating a poetry video. It’s me reading my poem “A Call to Arms,” and it’s fully captioned. Let me know what you think!

    By the way, this poem also appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of Trillium Literary Journal.

    Poem Draft: “Until the Day”

    Like some of my other writer friends, I’ve been mostly keeping up with the April 2010 Poem-A-Day Challenge, a feature of Robert Lee Brewer’s Poetic Asides blog. Every day throughout the month, Brewer offers a writing prompt, an idea designed to spur creativity.

    I’m not going to post all the drafts I’ve generated over the past seven days, but I’ll post today’s. The assignment today was to “take the phrase ‘Until (blank),’ replace the blank with a word or phrase, make the new phrase the title of your poem, and write the poem.”

    So here’s my poem. Comments are welcome.

    Day 7: Until the Day

    (Inspired by, and dedicated to, Constance McMillan)

    Until the day
    the two girls in tuxedos
    the boy in the boa
    the girl who still loves Clifford
    the boy whose laughter leaks a glittering thread to the towel tucked in his collar
    the girl who writes fairytales with smart sarcastic animals
    the boy who envies the girls their brash reds purples pinks
    the girl who dances badly and so joyfully
    the boy who was a girl and the boy who will become a woman
    can all strut into flower-festooned gyms
    smile for years remembering this night
    see their truest selves in yearbooks

    Until that day
    we will all carry a sour burden of shame
    heavy well water logging our crops’ roots

    New Year Blue Moon

    New Year Blue Moon

    Blue moon isn’t blue.
    It’s the pink that white becomes
    when mixed with city light and smog.
    It starts as a smudge behind bare trees.
    Add a dash of nostalgia,
    a pinch of anticipation.
    Then chill. Serve
    faithfully, even when the moon is new, invisible,
    and the year is old, less promising.

    Three Haiku from My Recent Camping Trip

    I’m not sure whether the plural of haiku is “haiku” or “haikus.” Poetry experts, let me know what you think.

    I do know, however, that supposedly “minor” language questions can actually be significant in terms of conveying information. For example, when I was planning our camping trip last week, I checked the web page for Golden Gate Canyon State Park, where we had reserved a yurt for our party of six, including three wheelchair users. The description read, “The yurts accommodate a maximum of six people. They have two bunk beds, one twin-size and one double-size…” I took that to mean that there were six beds total, but in fact there are four, and they are ALL bunk beds — which are, to say the least, quite a challenge for people who need assistance to get into bed, change clothes, etc. A lot of heads got bumped.

    Well, I guess there are two ways to read the sentence above, but I think that changing the comma ( ,) after “bunk beds” to a colon ( : ) would have been a big help.

    Nevertheless, we had a wonderful time in that beautiful, partly accessible, occasionally peaceful environment. We were a group of family members both related and chosen, and friends who are essentially family too.

    My time there inspired a few short poems, the haiku(s?) below.

    Tall pines loom over
    loving thoughtless laughter,
    lean into gray dusk.

    Campfire eats logs, air,
    matches, and thoughts. It feeds us
    heat for meat and words.

    Late night, our yurt yawns
    us into its round belly,
    to rest for travel.

    GoldenGateStateParkAug2009 048

    On Airports and Personhood

    Realizing it’s been too long since my last blog post, I was going to comment on the fact that for some reason, the White House has apparently given two different jobs, two pretty important jobs, to one person. I’ll still try to write about that, probably this weekend. (Remind me, okay?)

    But first, I have to react to a well-written and infuriating blog post by Canadian activist Dave Hingsburger. Seems Dave was sitting in his wheelchair in an airport, minding his own business, when an overzealous security guard came along and commandeered Dave’s luggage. When Dave objected, the guard explained that luggage could not be left unattended. Dave pointed out that he was right there, attending his own luggage. As the exchange escalated, it became painfully clear that, based on disability, the guard regarded Dave as essentially a non-person, unqualified to supervise his own suitcases.

    I’ve spent a few thousand hours in airports myself over the years. For some reason, when I think about disempowering environments, airports rank right up there with hospitals and Social Security offices.

    About a year ago, I wrote a poem about the kind of dehumanization I frequently experience in airports. So far I’ve had no luck getting it accepted for publication, so I’ve decided to post it here — as a gesture of solidarity with Dave.

      [NOTE: I’ve taken down this poem because it is under consideration for possible publication in a literary journal.]

    Time to Kill (a draft poem)

    Time to Kill

    Left home early
    Found parking right away
    just two blocks away
    Twenty till
    Gotta lotta time to kill

    Now’s the time
    Now’s the hour
    Choose a weapon
    sunshine or television
    coffee or beer
    the Post or beat poets

    All pleasures lethal
    to time