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  • Mike Cotayo

Standing up for others, standing up for yourself


I was a year and a half old when I was in the car accident. When I was a kid my grandfather, whom I loved dearly, told me all I could ever do in life was to be a teacher because of my disability. I used to scream at him, at 5, 6, 7 and 8 years old that I could do or be whatever I wanted. Stubborn as always. I actually wanted to be a teacher, but refused because I had to prove him wrong. 😜

Being disabled we are always at the mercy of other people's preconceived notions of who and what we are. It is a micro-aggression, and there is really no excuse for this type of behavior because for me saying that someone was just dealing with their own preconceived notions or they didn't really mean any harm by it allows people to give them a pass.

As a person with a disability I grew up hating myself, hating the body I lived in, and believing that I was less than. Less than normal. Less than human.

I learned to fight after being robbed, and after having to do home visits in the projects in the Bronx. Even before I *knew* how to fight I was pretty scrappy and when I was robbed on two different occasions I fought back, which my attackers were not suspecting. In high school I had a gym teacher who showed me the basics of boxing. My parents did not want me to take boxing or karate as a kid, even though I begged. They either didn't see the point or thought I would get hurt, or that it would be wasted money.

I think as people with disabilities we are expected to be grateful when people 'help' us. I was once a block away from work when a construction worker, without asking, took my arm and escorted me across the street. I lost it. I started screaming at him to get his hands off of me. That felt so disrespectful to me. The response of he was just trying to be helpful really irks me. He put me in the category of invalid. Did you ever notice Invalid and in-valid are the same word. That is why I think we, as people with disabilities, fight to be strong. And when we are mad that we are being helped, we are viewed as ungrateful.

I have a great life. I was a professional stand up comedian about 10 years ago then went back to social work and ultimately psychotherapy training. I'm performing again, I was approached to write a book. Now, have a full time private psychotherapy practice. With each accomplishment though, I somehow hope that my disability will go away. It doesn't, and the desire to be 'normal' by societal standards will always be there.

My roommate told me I need to look at why this affects me so much, why my anger about my disability is so alive lately, and he told me he was proud of me for standing up for myself when the guy kept on saying I was disabled, but he said I should have stopped him after he said it the first time because even just saying it once is not OK. I think my internalized ableism gave him a pass the first ten times he said it.

This is about doing what is right.

I am 40 years old. I have a disability from a car accident. My left side is weaker than my right. I've been boxing for five years. I know how to protect myself, and even though I am not conventionally normal, I am normal.

I am a social worker in NYC and have been working with the severely mentally ill since I was 23 years old. I’ve always been a peacemaker; last night was no different. I was on the train, and at one stop, this woman in her 20's rushed in front of me, and this guy walked behind her, screaming profanities and threatening her. She was cornered with her back against the door. Everyone moved out of the way. No one helped her, just stared and watched. In that moment, I decided. I stood up. "Hey buddy, what are you doing? C'mon man, leave her alone." He focused on me, and she got away while he turned all of his energy on me, and started screaming and threatening me. I was in the perfect position to knock him out. He was close to me, and I've been in enough of these situations to know the calculated risks. I felt sorry for him, though. I ended up sitting down when he told me to sit the hell down, because mental illness trumps pride every time. I was hoping I’d diffused the situation, but then the guy got into it with someone else. At this point I stood up again, looked at the guy he was fighting with, touched his shoulder and said, “Dude, leave him alone. This is not worth it. Please back up.” He did, then another guy came forward and started fighting with him. I tried to move this time. The original guy looked at me, and said, "Don't worry, we're cool." Are you serious, my dude? By the way, this is the longest 6 minute ride.

The doors finally opened, and there was a mass exodus. People asked me if I was okay. I was fine, except for the massive rush of adrenaline coursing through my body. It made it harder for me to steady myself.

One guy looked at me and said, “Shit, you're disabled. That's just wrong. He can't defend himself!" He kept on repeating that I'm disabled and can't defend myself. Really? That’s what I just did. I defended myself and a woman who was about to get punched by someone. I worked hard to de-escalate a situation, and got off that train untouched.

The cops came and put the guy in cuffs. The woman thanks me. The police asked us if we wanted to press charges, but we both said no.

The guy kept on saying to the cops, “He's disabled; he can't defend himself,” over and over, out loud. I turned to him and said, “Excuse me Sir, I'm a boxer, I know how to fight and how to protect myself and you continuing to say this out loud is very insulting.” He looked shocked, then turned and said, "I'm sorry, I meant no disrespect.”

Out of this whole thing, what upset me the most was being made to feel less than after I had just protected and stuck up for myself, the young lady named Chantel, and kept this man occupied.

Also, where was everyone else when I did stand up? This pack mentality of, “It’s not my fight, I do not need to get involved" is ridiculous. We all need to stand up for one another, even when it is hard. Even if it is dangerous, because it’s the right thing to do.

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