Poetry of Disability: Discovering the Voice of Laura Hershey

Besides my family, there’s nothing I love more than my library at home. Its tall bookshelves are filled with books of all kinds; novels, poetry, essays, biographies, dictionaries, etc., and now and then I bring home additional volumes purchased in the nearest bookshop.

My husband sometimes questions the need to buy more books when I haven’t yet read all the ones already in my possession. But I call it an investment.

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One of the books on my poetry shelf is a hefty anthology of poetry of disability, Beauty is a Verb, and if someone I know hadn’t once recommended this book to me, I might not have discovered the powerful writings of Laura Hershey (1962-2010).

An American poet, writer and journalist, Hershey was born with a form of muscular dystrophy and spent her life in a wheelchair. Not only was she a prominent voice in the disability rights movement, but she was also a champion of women’s rights and social justice.

She worked tirelessly to challenge negative perceptions of people with disabilities and, fighting for equal rights, she wrote:

“We have to demand the things that are essential to our lives, equality, and quality of life…We must refuse to feel gratitude for these, except the normal level of gratitude that anyone might feel for living in a time and place that still supports human life.”

You Get Proud by Practicing, is one of her best-known poems and I believe its message is highly relevant to all of us, whether or not we have a disability:

 

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 those 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 the 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 lifts,

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 very 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 cannot 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.

 

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