Friday, November 15, 2013


Several years ago I launched this blog as a way to reflect on recent experiences or esoteric discoveries from which I'd learned something useful, something to remember for future endeavors. 

Finally, at long last, I might actually have a post that fits that original mission.

Yes, this is another story about health-insurance reform.  I've been a supporter.  I thought I knew all about it.  I thought we'd have no problems.

Blue Shield told me it would automatically convert me to a new plan that's not only better but would save me about $200 a month!  It sounded so good, I was going to add my wife and daughters (who have been covered by Aetna, which is leaving California).

Then I heard something on the radio.  It suggested checking your new policy's network of physicians to make sure your doctors are still included.  I hadn't thought of that.

Sure enough, the new and better plan had found a legal way to skimp--by shrinking the "network."  None of my doctors would be part of it.

When I called Blue Shield to double-check, I got a confusing answer.  "I don't know," said the customer service agent.  "Our computers might not be up to date.  Call your doctors' offices."

So I did.  The doctors' offices reassured me that they WILL still be part of the Blue Shield Preferred Provider Network.  No worries, right?

Still, the discrepancy bothered me.  I particularly didn't want to be recommending Blue Shield to my family if it was going to suck.

I called Jeni Blumenthal.  She's a local insurance broker.  Why didn't I call her sooner?  Well, I'm the kind of guy who goes directly to the insurers, that's why.  I never used a travel agent either.  (You older folks may remember when there used to be travel agents.)

Jeni instantly understood my problem, practically finishing my sentences for me.  "UCLA--" which is the group most of my doctors are part of "--is in the Blue Shield Preferred Provider Network only for group plans, not individual policies," she explained.

Aha!  In one sentence she had solved a mystery that had been dogging me for weeks!

Blue Cross, on the other hand, would cover the UCLA doctors but did not offer a PPO plan in my area, meaning if I went out of network I'd have to foot the entire bill.  Also, some of my doctors are affiliated with Cedars-Sinai, which I guess is so far away (half-hour drive, in Beverly Hills) that none of the local carriers would cover them!

But, she said, CIGNA was going to be offering a plan in my area that would include all of my doctors.  Details such as price won't be released until next week.

That's assuming, of course, that Washington doesn't change everything before then.  Honestly, health insurance has become like the weather in Boston.  If you don't like it, just wait a few minutes and it'll change.

So stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


In the last week of August, just in time for Labor Day, Vice President Joe Biden announced that the Obama Administration would pursue requiring federal contractors to fill at least 7 percent of their workforce with people with disabilities.

He was speaking at the American Legion convention, but the news resonates for all disabled Americans, not just the veterans he was addressing.

The specific target of 7 percent will give teeth to what has been a vague affirmative-action goal since President Nixon signed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  It follows upon President Obama's earlier promise to make the federal government itself a model of equal opportunity employment.  But this additional step is particularly meaningful because it fulfills a 40-year-old bipartisan promise to, as Biden said, "help ensure equal rights and employment opportunities for veterans and people with disabilities."

I was not yet 10 when the Rehab Act became law, but I was already a wheelchair-user.  I was born with a neuromuscular condition called spinal muscular atrophy, which rendered me quadriplegic.  The Rehab Act was the first far-reaching piece of legislation defending the rights of folks like me.  It took four more years, and nationwide protests and sit-ins, for one of its most important provisions—Section 504, which requires equal access for the handicapped in federally funded institutions and programs—to become codified.  As a result, I was able to attend almost any college I wanted.  At least in theory.  The law went into effect in 1980, the very year I graduated from high school.

Of course, that transition wasn't easy and this one won't be either.  At the time, some universities were frank about the challenges of accommodating a student in a wheelchair.  "It'll be damn difficult," one admissions officer told my father.  Others bent over backwards to avert a lawsuit, even accepting me before I had actually filed an application. 

I ended up at Harvard, one of its first—if not the first—quadriplegic freshmen admitted.

After all these years I assumed that the Rehab Act had done its job.  It had gotten stuffy old places like Harvard to accommodate students like me.  I did not know about federal contractors, about Section 503.

Some might say that in clarifying and enforcing Section 503, which merely required federal contractors to "develop and implement a written affirmative action program," the Obama Administration is fixing a problem that didn't exist.  To me, though, it's more accurate to say the president went out of his way to bring people with disabilities into parity with other minorities and women.

Indeed, the issue was barely on disability-rights activists' back burners.  A hotter concern has been the UN's Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to safeguard disability rights internationally.  Or how to stop Medicaid from shunting recipients into expensive, neglectful nursing homes instead of allowing them home-based, self-directed care--a cause the president seems to favor, in his support of the Olmstead ruling.

But employment disparities should not be overlooked.  In June, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that unemployment among employment-age people with disabilities was 14.2 percent, almost twice the 7.6 percent for the rest of the population.

Granted, some disabled people may be easier to employ than others.  In fact, an earlier Labor Department proposal for enforcing Section 503 called for a lower threshold of just 2 percent for the most severely disabled.  But we have to face the fact that there is still unwarranted prejudice.  Even with my Harvard degree, I never could find a job.  Instead, I took freelance writing assignments.  Voice-recognition computers certainly upped my productivity.  I'm using it to write this.

So it might take a little creative thinking, flexibility and technology to meet these employment goals.  Is flex-time an option?  Can some of the work be performed at home?  People who live with disabilities tend to be expert problem-solvers and self-starters.

My hope is that the new standard will help people with disabilities take control of their own lives and reduce their dependence on government subsidies. More than that, I hope it will help show the nondisabled coworkers what we're made of.  After all, the point of diversity and full inclusion is not just to benefit the marginalized.  It is to create the kind of synergies that can only come from expanding one's boundaries, from welcoming the new and different, and allowing the cross-fertilization of ideas. 

It's unfortunate this important piece of civil-rights progress was overshadowed by the following day's tributes to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.  It's surely something Martin Luther King would have supported.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The New "Ironside": Good or Bad for Crips?

When NBC announced a reboot of “Ironside” was coming this fall, you might have dismissed it as just the latest Hollywood rehash.  But for wheelchair-users like me, it’s either cause for celebration or an omen of despair.

The old Raymond Burr series about a tough-as-nails paraplegic ex-police chief was never exactly enlightened.  But as a disabled kid in the 1960s and 70s, I clung to it with near religious fervor.  For me, Chief Ironside was a model for refusing to be defined by others’ limited expectations.  I came to rely on him as a kind of lifeline.

I never could walk or even stand, but like the hardboiled cop I didn’t want to be underestimated.  I felt determined to live a full, active life--to strut my stuff.

So I welcome the return of “Ironside,” but with a note of caution.  Will the producers screw it up?

To be sure, the original program had flaws.  It never talked much about the Chief’s disability.  Yet that was partly what made the portrayal so appealing.  It was simply an aspect of his character.  It didn’t define him, just as mine wouldn’t define me.  I knew his fictional physical limitations were different from my real ones.  But for me, just seeing a guy in a chair who was fearless and in charge was revelatory and redemptive.

The old show had other shortcomings, too.  Ironside rarely had to explain himself to others, as I was always having to do.  “I can’t walk,” I would answer nosy strangers.  “I was born this way. … It’s a neuromuscular weakness called spinal muscular atrophy.”  On “Ironside,” no one asked because everyone knew.  He’d been shot in the line of duty. His reputation preceded him.  

He also had a knack for materializing on the upper floors of buildings with no elevator, and apparently never had a problem finding an accessible bathroom.  Late in the series, he even drove his own van without adaptive hand controls! 

Nevertheless, the show introduced me, and much of the world, to a wheelchair-accessible van, complete with automatic lift.  Ironside's office had a built-in ramp and speakerphone, too.  I didn't have any of that, and you'd better believe I wanted it all.  The empowering paraphernalia had the effect of magic, especially compared to the other prominent image of disability on TV in those days--the pitiful kids on telethons.

Granted, my memories are hopelessly tinged with nostalgia, as will be my appraisal of the new version.  I’m bound to tsk-tsk every little difference—such as moving the series from San Francisco, a source of endless plot lines in the days of Haight-Ashbury hippiedom, to New York.  And switching the composition of Ironside’s hand-picked team, if not eliminating it altogether, seems a no-no.  In the original, his crew included one of TV’s first female police officers (two of the first, actually, considering a cast change in year 4) and a smart young African-American man who frequently faced down racism as he rose from the Chief’s assistant to a full-fledged attorney.

Not to mention the casting of the lead role.  Instead of a heavyset, gruff-yet-avuncular old white guy, we now have his opposite in buff, middle-aged Blair Underwood (who, like Burr, became famous playing a TV lawyer). 

But none of that matters.  The new show could still win me over.  Yes, some will complain about a nondisabled actor once again portraying a paraplegic.  Even that doesn’t faze me, though, if he plays it well.  And by well, I mean realistically.

Indeed, a touch more disability realism than the original managed would be most welcome.  No, it shouldn’t overwhelm the story.  We don’t need to see Ironside’s bladder and bowel procedures.  This isn’t a documentary.  But every now and then, couldn’t the new Chief wrestle with equipment failure, pressure sores, strangers’ stupid questions, or architectural barriers?

Let’s face it: Simply presenting a tough guy on wheels isn’t enough to impress anyone anymore.  Not in the age of Stephen Hawking, “Push Girls,” or “The Sessions.”  Audiences are smarter than they used to be.  To get the willing suspension of disbelief, you've got to infuse some convincing details.

Better still, the new show could have a social conscience.  It could address the economic and political inequities people like me face. 

But let’s not get carried away.  If it doesn’t do any harm, that might have to be good enough.  Of course, I could be pleasantly surprised.  I never imagined we’d see so many people in wheelchairs riding city buses as we do today, or that Michael J. Fox would return to prime time with Parkinson’s (as is happening this fall).  Disability inclusion has come a long way. 

Perhaps the original “Ironside” helped make this progress possible.  Its new incarnation could play a similar role, as long as it recognizes its potential to open people’s eyes to life’s possibilities.

Sunday, June 16, 2013


In retrospect, wish I had spoken more about disability history—the importance of teaching kids with disabilities about their place in the continuum of progress, imparting them with a sense of pride and justice.  The big picture, to me, is what's most inspiring.
But at the Families of Spinal Muscular Atrophy conference, parents seem so desperate for solutions, for coping strategies.  Understandable, to be sure.  Yet something is lost if you don't see SMA as part of the normal variety/diversity of human life.
Maybe next time…
Anyway, here are the remarks I prepared for my two-minute introduction.  Didn't get to use my cheat sheet, though, because there was no convenient place to prop my paper! So I winged it.
This is what I would've said– – –
I'm delighted to be here today, and delighted you're all here, too.  What we're going to talk about is very important to me, very close to my heart.
It's nice, too, that in this crowd I don't have to define "spinal muscular atrophy."  You all know what it is.  You probably know the statistics and understand the science better than I do!
But my message may surprise you.  You see, I don't want to be an inspiration. People keep telling me I'm inspirational, but that's never been my intention.  I've always just sort of lived my life the best I could with the resources I had.
I'm a married Harvard graduate, father of 2, freelance journalist, NPR commentator and, now, book author. I am also, as my late friend Harriet McBryde Johnson–who also had SMA–put it, "in the first generation to survive to such decrepitude." 
Not until I was in my 40s did I begin to reflect on HOW I'd gotten where I am. I mean, if it wasn't my heroic courage & pluckiness, what on earth was it? 
Well, I had 2 key advantages:  First, from my parents I had this wild idea that I was entitled to everything anybody else was. Second, progress was on my side–medical progress, technological progress, and civil-rights progress.
But perhaps most of all, what's buoyed me onward is the community of people with disabilities, this community of SMA families. So thank you for having me. I welcome your questions.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Keep your Fountain of Youth!

I have few hobbies.  I don't play tennis, golf, or Xbox.  I watch the occasional NBA game or police procedural.  On weekends, my wife and I like to do the tough crossword puzzles together, a cooperative team effort.  And I read, of course, but for me that's almost as much a professional endeavor as a pleasant pastime.
None of these activities are done on anything resembling a regular, devoted basis, as a true hobby would be.
Yet I do indulge in a guilty pleasure I just can't seem to stop: I like to watch old movies (and some old TV shows).
Hard to say why exactly.  It used to be—in the years after I graduated from college—that I considered myself almost an unofficial student of cinematic history.  I rented every intriguing old movie I could find at specialty video stores.  I went gaga for Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch, "discovered" forgotten stars such as Warren William or Pola Negri.  I took in everything from the obscure European silent to the popular romantic comedies of the so-called Golden Age.  I was determined to memorize each one so I'd never accidentally watch the same film twice.
You like the Tracy-Hepburn matchups?  Ah, but have you ever seen "Keeper of the Flame"?  You think "It's A Wonderful Life" is a great holiday flick?  Have you ever seen "The Shop Around The Corner"?
Aside from the escapist pleasures of the moving-images themselves, I was equally fascinated by the cultural and historical implications.  Were women portrayed more fairly in the early years of Hollywood (Marion Davies, Constance Bennett, etc.) than in, say, the reactionary 1950s?  Why was Sidney Poitier so important to the Civil Rights Movement?
And perhaps most relevant to me, why were there so many villains with disfigurements and/or outright disabilities?  (Can you hear me, Lon Chaney?)
Last week, for no particular reason, I started to re-watch "Monkey Business."  Not the Marx Brothers vehicle from the 1930s but the 1952 film of the same name, perhaps best known nowadays as an early vehicle from Marilyn Monroe.  (Make your own "chassis" joke.)  She's quite funny as the archetypal Dumb Blonde Secretary, but that's not why I started watching it.  Honestly.  I was randomly searching for Cary Grant titles.
Anyway, Grant is the real star of the movie, along with Ginger Rogers.  In many ways it's a sort of remake of his "Bringing Up Baby"--he's an absent-minded scientist who has hijinks involving obstreperous animals.  To my surprise, I was hooked and had to watch it all the way through.
Now, maybe it's a sign of encroaching Alzheimer's, but I really didn't remember any of the details of this movie though I'm sure I must've seen it before.  (Mustn't I?)  If anything, I vaguely recall once upon a time thinking it was too silly to bear.
Yes, it IS silly.  It's slapstick comedy.  But here's the thing: I think it has a terrific message for people with disabilities.  Especially people aging with disabilities.
Not to give too much away, but there's an accidental discovery of an anti-aging formula, a lab-created Fountain of Youth.  Which creates situations aplenty for the actors to behave like, well, wild intoxicated idiots.
In the end, of course, they realize that shedding the strictures of age ain't so great.  Simple message—youth and its concomitant healthiness aren't all they're cracked up to be.  He'd rather need eyeglasses and suffer through his bursitis or whatever—and she'd rather be stodgily middle-aged (at all of 41!)—than be the outrageous, insecure, jealous, wasteful and antisocial hellions they were as healthy, energetic kids.
It's sweet.  To me, however, there's a profound disability message in this.  Sure, depending on assistive devices such as wheelchairs can be a big inconvenience.  But you can live happily with such limitations and dependencies.  To an extent, you're only as old or as decrepit as you feel yourself to be.
I guess you can find profound messages or, for that matter, offensive stereotypes in all kinds of places.  All I know is, this stupid old movie kept me grinning for days!

Sunday, March 10, 2013


Scapegoating the Mentally Ill
(A work-in-progress, on the slow course of progress...)

The current national discussion about gun control, though plainly necessary and important, takes a dangerous turn when it sets sights on people with mental illness.

I don't have a mental illness and can't claim to understand the many varieties and ramifications of that diagnosis.  But I have a physical disability, which can be just as stigmatizing. 
I was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic neuromuscular weakness.  I'm a lifelong wheelchair-user with pretty much no use of my concentration-camp-thin arms and hands. 
Sometimes when people see me they become a little afraid.  I don't want people to fear me, and I don't think we should fear people with mental illness either.

To be sure, the need to cut gun violence is paramount.  And I'm not against background checks to screen gun buyers for a criminal record.  Recidivism among violent offenders is alarmingly high.  That's a very different kind of precaution, though, from targeting those who rely on meds to keep their thoughts and emotions aligned.

I concede that mental illness enters the debate only in the context of preventing sufferers from falling through the cracks, to help them as much as to avert a future disaster.  This is not a modern-day witch hunt.  Yet I can't help feeling that the notion of using mental illness as a guide to identifying those who might be likely to commit violence one day just smacks of the disability equivalent of racial profiling. 

As someone who was not expected to live to adulthood because of a physical condition, but is now a 50-year-old husband, father, Harvard graduate, author and professional journalist, I don't put much stock in using a diagnosis to predict what people are and are not capable of. 

The fact is, the majority of people who are diagnosed with a mental illness are nonviolent.  Murderers, no doubt, are not in their right minds.  Yet many fatal shootings are never connected with a pattern of mental illness.  Gang killings, to name one prevalent variety, may be motivated as much by drug use or peer pressure as anything else.  Not to mention jihadists, who kill with religious fervor but rarely go for psychological evaluations.

To me, the assumption that the mentally ill have especially itchy fingers stems from age-old stereotypes.  Back in the 14th century Geoffrey Chaucer wrote that "cripples" were "crafty," in the sense of sneaky.  Where would nightmare tales be without disfigured, limping, one-armed, hunchbacked, peg-legged, hook-handed, and eye-patched fiends?  These are the forebears of the modern "psycho killer"—a dysfunctional, deformed mind and body signifying a defective soul.  

Science has been in on it, too.  Through the 1970s serious academic studies attempted to link particular physical traits with criminal behavior.  At some universities, college students were routinely photographed in various states of undress to document their proportions—the ratio between their heights and their head sizes, and other minutia—in an attempt to forecast their fates.

Don't get me wrong.  We must do all we can to curb gun violence.  But in our rush to solve a virulent problem, let's not resort to what is really nothing more than a form of scapegoating.  We might as well single out people from a particular neighborhood or socioeconomic subgroup that has a high murder rate—yet that would be unthinkable, wouldn't it?  Focusing on those with mental illness should be just as abhorrent.