By Albert J. Rizzi, M.Ed.
You will be joining this club that I belong to, and you probably never gave it a second thought before. I know I never did until I got the invitation to join. Who would have thought that a club with notables and luminaries would have wanted me to join the club that seemed so “restricted” yet not? This club requires its members to be of a specific mindset and believe it or not, it does not discriminate. Something extremely refreshing given the social tenor of late. Before I illuminate you on the luminaries who are and or have been members of this club, and before I teach you the secret handshake and pledges you need to make, indulge me as I digress ever so slightly for a moment.
I grew up in the decade of Late-Night TV. Most notable of late-night programming was the now-infamous “Saturday Night Live”. I remember trying to stay up past my bedtime to catch the program so I could be cool enough to say that I saw what John Belushi did or what those wild and crazy guys, Dan Ackroyd and Steve Martin were up to. Over the years, if you’ve ever watched SNL, then you may be familiar with an ongoing bit called, The Five-Timers Club.
It all started back in 1990 when actor Tom Hanks hosted his fifth episode. The opening monologue featured him discussing the milestone. He was then whisked off to a “restricted” club which was a lot like a private club reserved only for those who hosted the show five times. Not only did one gain membership to this club, but they got a velvet smoking jacket and free drinks! God, I loved that smoking jacket and wanted one so badly.
Back in 1990, there were only a handful of individuals to reach such heights including Steve Martin, Buck Henry, Elliot Gould, and Paul Simon. To this day the membership is so restrictive that the club barely has 25 members to its name. Over the years, as new people hit the five-time mark, they are whisked off to the club and are given free drinks and, of course, the velvet smoking jacket. Proving, as with American Express, membership has its privileges. With time, membership to the once restricted club has grown exponentially. Now, 46 seasons later, once a celebrity host makes it to their fourth gig as a host, it seems inevitable that they are destined to join the club whether they want to or not. Every big and not-so-big celebrity with a movie, TV show, or album to promote is likely to be asked to be on SNL, positioning for the potential of wearing that velvet smoking jacket. Did I mention how much I want my own velvet smoking jacket? There are so many current members and “about-to-be” members waiting in the wings that NBC may need to consider building an addition onto the club located at 30 Rockefeller Plaza
The same thing is happening at the club I belong to, the same club you will be invited to join. Membership rolls are growing every day and, to be honest, is not as restricted or selective as SNL’s Five-Timers Club. More and more, people are joining with every passing year. It’s amazing! Globally our membership rolls are larger than the entire country of China with about 62 million members living in the United States alone!
But I am sure some of you are thinking to yourselves, I don’t have time to join another club or take on the responsibilities that come with membership. Even though I cannot entice you to reconsider with the promise of a beautiful velvet smoking jacket (God, I wish the club would reconsider that one) or free drinks, you will join this club and will absolutely be unable to refuse the invite. Sorry, but like me, you really have no choice in the matter.
We will be in the same club regardless of your free time or lack thereof, shared interests or not, politics, religion, gender, race, nationality, or orientation. One day, maybe not tomorrow but soon, and for the rest of your life, you will be a card toting member of the club known as the Disability Community. After all, most of us are “temporarily able” and destined to become a member of this club. Now, there are people who are born into the club too. However, a large percentage of our membership join the club unexpectedly. This is what happened to me. I was once an active member of the “temporarily able” club. I was a healthy man in my early forties with 20/20 vision, but circumstances beyond my control, a lethal form of meningitis that landed me in the hospital for two months completely sealed the deal for my becoming a member of the disability community.
Now, you may be thinking that this may never happen to you, and I pray that it doesn’t. What I had to endure, what I put my parents and friends through is not something I would wish on anyone. Even if you live your entire life with an abundance of care and always do the right thing, there are accidents that happen, and lest we forget, Father Time that drags you into old age. With old age comes age-related challenges that limit our mobility, our vision, our hearing, and the list goes on and on and on. Even if the odds are in your favor and you avoid life-changing trauma or illness, age is going to get you.
With every tick of the clock, you are getting older. With age comes infirmity and soon you will be collecting your unique assortment of debilitating and disabling conditions and you too will be ‘dis’ labeled like me, and there isn’t going to be a handsome velvet smoking jacket to make you feel proud or better about membership.
It might start with problems with your sight or your hearing. Or maybe your hips will give out and your independent mobility compromised. Maybe you will suffer a stroke, develop arthritis, diabetes, or any number of life-altering conditions that qualify you for membership to my club. Next thing you know, you will be saying to yourself, much as I did, “How the hell did I get here?”
Nothing in my history or in the plans that I made for my life included having a disability that forced me to consider what a challenge was outside of making sure my car ran, the rent was paid, and I had a little leftover for fun and relaxation. “Good-bye” being temporarily able and “Hello” to being ‘dis’ labeled, marginalized, disenfranchised, and segregated or restricted from participating as a valued and appreciated member in both our social and corporate cultures! Sorry to paint such a gloomy picture but fear not! There is an upside, but it isn’t that beautiful velvet smoking jacket I’m all jazzed about.
This is possibly the best time in all of human history to be a person with a disability. We are no longer relegated to being seen and not heard. We are not being institutionalized as was done as recently as the 1970s. We can rise to heights never before afforded to a person who just happened to have a disability. If you don’t believe me take a measure of our membership roster, and the people, past and present that shaped and impacted the human condition. Albert Einstein, Sir Richard Branson, Winston Churchill, Stephen Hawking, Julia Roberts, Michael J. Fox, Beethoven, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and me!
Technology and medicine are not only helping people in our club live longer, we get to live it with a much better quality of life than people did even twenty years ago. Not so long ago, some conditions that were a death sentence or required being institutionalized are now merely an inconvenience requiring an apparatus, some extra medication, or a lifestyle change.
So, in advance of joining the rest of us, welcome to the club! I will show you the secret handshake if you ask nicely but, sorry, there isn’t a velvet smoking jacket that comes with membership. So the next time your community, your school, your place of employment, or a club you belong to struggles with how to include a person who just happens to have a disability, remember lest you forget, that you are destined to become a member of the disability club. You need to prepare yourself to be ‘dis’ labeled, that is unless you decide to take a stand and demand that Ability gets celebrated and included alongside Race, Gender, Orientation, or Religion in both our social and corporate cultures. I need to leave it here, for now, I need to get fitted for my smoking jacket.