How UUCC & Unitarian Universalism Inspired Me to Become a Disability Advocate

How UUCC & Unitarian Universalism Inspired Me to Become a Disability Advocate

From IMBALANCED: A Memoir by Sheri Thomas, copyright 2021 by Luminare Press. For a free digital copy of IMBALANCED, email imbalanced.book@gmail.com. Paperback copies are available through Howard County Library.

The story of my birth on December 21, 1961, was described as a miracle not only by my family but also on the front page of the Jefferson City, Missouri Post-Tribune. The headline of its February 21, 1962 issue was: “Two-Pound Baby Wins Life Fight.” That baby was me, and the story celebrated my release from the hospital after spending months in an incubator struggling to survive. My homecoming news shared the page with “John Glenn in Excellent Condition After Three Orbits of Globe.”

When I was 15 months old, doctors told my parents that I was “mentally retarded.”*
(*During my childhood, certain words, no longer acceptable today, were commonly used to describe me and others with disabilities: mentally retarded, crippled, and handicapped. For accuracy, I have included them in my book, although it pains me to do so.)

My mother refused to believe this diagnosis, and she fought to have me properly tested. Several months later, I was properly diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

After a childhood filled with braces, painful surgeries and bullying, I became editor-in-chief of both my high school and college newspapers. After graduating from Seton Hall University, I briefly worked as a magazine editor and journalist, before the field’s pitifully low wages in the 1980s led me to pursue a successful and more lucrative career in sales.

As my various disabilities progressed, I reluctantly retired and found myself longing for spirituality. Although I had been raised Catholic, I stopped going to church as a teenager. I felt the Catholic Church was too confining for me. My husband Douglas had been raised Jewish, but when he was in the army, he gravitated toward Christianity.

In early 1999, I told Doug that I wanted to find a local non-denominational church for us to attend so that we could embrace spirituality and make some new friends. The problem was that I had no idea of what kind of non-denominational church I was looking for. All I knew was that I wanted to find a church that accepted everyone.

One Sunday, I spotted a small ad in the newspaper for a nearby church that said, “Everyone was welcome.” I wrote down the information and told Doug that we should check out a service the following weekend.

When we walked into UUCC the following Sunday, we were greeted warmly by Ruth Smith who gave each of us a hug. As we sat down and listened to the service, Doug and I were immediately drawn to the seven guiding principles of Unitarian Universalism, which include: promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person, justice, equity and compassion in human relations and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

After being diagnosed as “mentally retarded” as a toddler and facing so much discrimination throughout my life because of my disability, how could I not love a religion that believes in promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person?

I’m proud that we are a liberal religion that embraces everyone, regardless of race, creed, disability, or sexual orientation. We have fought for social justice, civil rights and marriage equality, but we must work harder to recognize and fight racial injustice.

As my spirituality deepened, I began to look for ways to promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, especially those with disabilities. I was finally ready to embrace my true calling. At a UUCC auction event, I met new members John and Andrea Holt and Marni McNeese, who worked for Howard County Government in Disabilities Services and staffed the county’s Commission on Disabilities. That immediately piqued my interest, since I was looking for ways to help people with disabilities.

Every January, the church’s religious education teachers took a month-long break from teaching their regular Sunday morning classes, and UUCC asked for a volunteer who would be willing to teach the children about a special topic. On the last Sunday in January, the service would cover the same topic.

I told our religious education director that I wanted to teach the kids about disability awareness during the month of January in 2000. I asked Marni to help me because she loved kids and worked in the disability field.

Marni was great. She found children’s books on disability awareness, and we developed fun things to do with the kids, like showing them what braille looked like, letting them try out crutches, and turning the sound off on the TV to show what it is like to see without hearing and why closed-captioning is so important.

On the last Sunday in January, the kids joined the rest of the congregation in the sanctuary for the disability awareness service featuring many of the things we had taught the children.

We stressed the importance of using the proper language to identify people with disabilities: We had the congregation repeat after us: “Sheri has a disability” instead of “Sheri is handicapped, crippled or disabled.” “Bob has an intellectual disability” instead of “Bob is mentally retarded.” “Mary has a mental health condition” instead of “Mary is mentally ill.”

Today, according to the National Center on Disability and Journalism (www.ncdj.org) it is preferable to ask the person how they would like to be described and use the actual name of the disability, if possible, as long as the diagnosis has come from a reputable source, such as a medical professional or other licensed professional. Today, if it’s relevant to a conversation or situation, I’ll say, “I have cerebral palsy.” I’m not “afflicted with” or “suffering from” cerebral palsy. If I’m just talking about sports, the fact that I have cerebral palsy is irrelevant.

On the 30th anniversary of the signing of the ADA (July 26, 2020), I co-lead another church service about disability awareness with Marian Vessels, a member of Channing Memorial Church, Unitarian Universalist, where Doug and I are also members.

After the service we did together in January 2000, Marni encouraged me to apply to fill an opening on the Howard County Commission on Disabilities. A few weeks later, the county council passed a resolution appointing me to the commission, where I served for 10 years, eventually becoming its chairperson.

I also represented the Howard County Commission on Disabilities on a new statewide organization called the Maryland Alliance of Disability Commissions and Committees. The Alliance was formed so members of disability commissions throughout Maryland could share ideas and information. We also wanted to have a voice in state and national legislation.

During one of the Alliance meetings, we found out that Baltimore City was working with the Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) and its police department to catch people illegally using handicapped parking spaces (or accessible parking spaces as we advocates call them). Often, non-disabled family members or acquaintances think they are entitled to park in these spaces even though the person for whom the plates or placards were issued is not with them. That’s illegal.

In 2004, The Maryland Alliance of Disability Commissions and Committees supported legislation to create a state cabinet-level Department of Disabilities.

Nationally, Alliance members helped to pass the Mathew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 which expanded the federal hate crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s disability, in addition to race, actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

The Alliance also worked to pass Rosa’s Law, introduced by Maryland Senator Barbra Mikulski in 2009, which changed references to “mental retardation” in federal legislation to “intellectual disability.” The law was named after a Maryland girl, Rosa Marcellino, who has Down Syndrome. As someone who has been hurt by the words “mentally retarded,” I was thrilled to see Rosa’s Law signed into law by President Barack Obama.

In 2005, I was honored by the commission with its Individual Achievement Award. In a letter, Maryland Delegate Gail Bates of Howard County wrote, “We are fortunate to have someone like you, who worked tirelessly to render the Banneker Room of the George Howard Building accessible to all our citizens. In addition, your efforts to obtain closed captioning on GTV (local government TV) and your continuous service on the state level as Vice-Chairperson of the Maryland Alliance (of Disability Commissions and Committees) help make Maryland and Howard County so wonderful.”

In 2014, I was hospitalized and first diagnosed with bipolar, but I refused to follow up with psychiatric treatment or take my medication as directed, which led to a much more serious bipolar episode in 2019 which almost cost me my life. This time, I listened to my doctors, took my medication, and more importantly, accepted my diagnosis. Today, I take my medication as directed and continue to see my psychiatrist on a regular basis. I go into much more detail about my recent mental health struggles in my new book. As one reviewer said, “Your book IMBALANCED is a master piece of information while it entertains the reader.  It is well written and gives insightful accounts of struggles and successes with physical disabilities and mental health. I enjoyed reading your book and wish you Congratulations!”

At the end of IMBALANCED, I share “10 Mental Health Tips I Learned The Hard Way.” #10 is the most important:

GET HELP. If I can help one person get help in an emergency by reaching out to a family member, neighbor, friend, clergy member, their doctor, psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist, or calling 911, my story will have made a difference.

If you or someone you know is experiencing emotional distress or thoughts of suicide, help is available at: NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) (NAMI) at 1-800-950-6264, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., ET. Or in a crisis, text “NAMI” to 741741 for 24/7 confidential, free, crisis counseling. Or call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 or call 911. (For a shareable PDF copy of my 10 Mental Health Tips, email imbalanced.book@gmail.com.)

8 Comments

  1. Gail Thompson

    Congratulations on your book, one long overdue for all of us. I remember when husband Ed was serving on the Commission on Disabilities and you were serving as Chair. He was so pleased when the Commission was asked to review architectural plans for a new school. Later you all were asked to walk through the accessible rooms of the new wing at Howard County Hospital and critic them. He also enjoyed presenting to school classrooms in the Disability Awareness Program. You brought the whole County a long way through your leadership.
    Walk tall. Your life has real meaning for more people than you will ever know. Thank you.

  2. Tim Lattimer

    Sheri, thank you for sharing your powerful story. And thanks also for all you have done to serve the community. Congratulations on your book, too!

  3. Marian Vessels

    Sheri,
    Thanks for sharing your story and being a very vocal and effective advocate.
    You and your story serve as a roadmap for those with disabilities to become involved and to reduce the stigma of mental illness.
    Proud to be your friend.
    As Justin Dart would often say LEAD ON!!
    marian

  4. Linda McCauley Freeman

    I have known Sheri since our first jobs out of college and had the honor of editing her book. I applaud her courage and her frankness in telling her story with an unflinching gaze. Her lessons learned are important, her words could be life- saving.

  5. Kimberly Uhl

    My Sister Sheri has always been an inspiration to me in that no matter what life has dealt her , she has proven that with determination and her faith in God so very much is possible. I’m so proud of all she’s accomplished in helping others to persevere and know that everyone matters and help is available even in the darkest moments of life. It is thru those moments that the light may get in once we’re cracked wide open !
    I love you sister and am
    So very grateful for you in
    My heart and life !
    Kimberly Uhl

  6. Jim Wu

    Kudos! Way to Go!
    Thank You 🙏 for sharing your stories and for Sharing You to make us All Better.
    You’re a Gem!
    🤗 Jim Wu

    PS – 👊 Hi to D.

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