Are you KIDDING ME? (Hard Gummies)

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I realize that the following two words, “hard gummies”, sound mutually exclusive, contradictory, oxymoronic, improbable, and just plain WRONG when you get down to it.

Stale gummies are an insult to candy lovers, especially in a household where we are pretty strict about NOT eating processed foods.  If and when we eat things that are filled with ingredients that are unpronounceable, we expect, nay, DEMAND that those highly processed goodies deliver on the packaging’s promises.

So imagine my surprise when we opened up a box of gummy “fruit slices”, and nearly broke a tooth when I tried to eat one.  “WTF !???” my mouth tried to say, with the candy stuck on my molars, like rock candy covered in crazy glue.

My wife Bonnie agreed with me that these were no ordinary gummies, and read the ingredient list. We soon discovered the candy was filled with preservatives, artificial flavors, and artificial colors.  About the only natural thing in it was the sugar.

As the candy finally began to soften, I thought:  If a company tricks me out of my usual healthy eating habits, with promises of artificial soft candy gummy goodness, is it really too much to ask for FRESH TASTING artificial crap?

I mean, they are not pretending to create anything healthy here, and are using ingredient names that are longer than my arm! HOW IN THE NAME OF EVERYTHING ARTIFICIAL is it possible to produce STALE GUMMIES?  Did they run out of preservatives like “neverhardatall” or “foreverfresh-a-zyme”?

To contribute YOUR food related “Are you KIDDING ME?” story, feel free to comment on Facebook, or here in this blog!

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A Chair is not Always A Chair

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In response to a question I saw to today:

Some people say “Don’t let disability define you.” Others believe we should “let disability define us – it’s part of our identities.” Which answer is right?

My reply:

Language itself is symbolic:  Words ARE labels, and conjure up ideas and images. Many labels are okay, if they are used as a STARTING POINT, and don’t limit our way of thinking.

A child sees a chair, and might even THINK “Ha, that’s a chair”. But leave that child alone in a room with that chair, and soon it becomes a mountain, a dragon, a space ship, almost anything and everything else BUT a chair.

In that way, labels like “disabled”, “blind person”, “dwarf”, can be helpful, in terms of quickly identifying what we need, and what works best for us. Without these labels, we’d never find each other on Facebook for example.

But those labels are JUST THE BEGINNING of who we are, and what we can accomplish.  Like a child, we can use our imaginations to become much more than the labels assigned to us.  We should also use that imagination to see more in others, no matter what labels THEY assign to themselves.

Labels are rarely the problem, unless the label is very rude. It’s how they are used, and how long we get stuck on them that causes more trouble.

Just a thought, from this curious dwarf, father, blogger, children’s book author, who lives in the land of Montreal, and is always trying to add more interesting labels to his definition.

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Gutenberg Goodies Guide

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As the father of a voracious book loving young daughter, I quickly began to realize: I will NEVER have enough money to keep up with feeding that growing and ever curious mind of hers.

We read together every day, sometimes twice a day.  I used the word voracious because I swear, my daughter consumes books so quickly, you can almost hear her munching on them.

Despite having a large collection, before she was five years old, we ran out of books to re-re-re-re-read. You could almost hear her brain drying up and crackling from lack of new material.  Like the man-eating plant in the movie “Little Shop of Horrors”, her brain was crying out loudly and plaintively:  “Feed me Seymour, FEEEEEED me!”

Out of desperation, I scoured the internet for free books: Lo and behold, I discovered Project Gutenberg. Before you could say “There’s no place like home!” I had downloaded “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, and we were reading along our new magical yellow brick road.

While the Gutenberg website is limited to books where the copyright has expired (mostly prior to early 1930’s), you would be surprised at the classics available, complete with original illustrations, from authors like Beatrix Potter, to Robert Louis Stevenson.

Multiple formats are supported (Epub for e-readers like Kindle and Kobo, PDF or HTML for tablets and computers), there is enough quality material to keep everyone young and old reading for at least one lifetime. There’s even an advanced search feature that allows you to search by category, author name, language, and more.

Here are a few quick links to get you started, but I do have one simple request: IF you download any books from Project Gutenberg, share some of the surprises you find there.  (I’m especially always looking for great illustrated children’s books).

Project Gutenberg’s Main page

Illustrated Children’s Books’s_Picture_Books_%28Bookshelf%29

For Science Fiction lovers:

And remember share with me any great children’s books you discover!

Frank Verpaelst

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Literary Rejection Ridiculousness

It’s SARCASM time!

Woohoo!  Rejection letters from literary agents are coming back for my first self-published book “Leander the Late Bloomer”.  Two things I keep seeing:

#1:  Most publishers DON’T WANT KIDS BOOKS THAT RHYME.  Their reasoning is: TOO DIFFICULT TO TRANSLATE.  (That makes it harder for them to make more money).

My thoughts on that:  With attitudes like that, we would have never seen wonderful books like those written by Sandra Boynton and Shel Silverstein.

#2:  Literary agents mostly reject self-published authors.  The reason I was given reveals that they automatically assume that SELF-PUBLISHED = LOWER QUALITY.  While my book might not be best seller material, I do feel it is better than 50% of the books I’ve personally read to my own daughter.

While I totally expected vast quantities of rejection letters, I was not expecting to be ruled out right off the bat.  I mean, how else are children to be exposed to new poetry, if publishers are starting to turn down rhyming stories just because it makes the international market difficult to attain?

Not great news by and large, BUT, I always work better when I know how steep the mountain is that I’m climbing.

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Self-Esteem: Society’s Problem, Not Mine

I actually very much dislike the word self-esteem, largely because the first part, the “self” part, implies that self-esteem develops in a vacuum. The “self” part causes too many people to believe, that when one’s esteem is low or weak, it is somehow our fault, and that the individual must take great strides to develop a stronger ego.

While it is never a good thing to be overly sensitive about what people say or think about us, that does not absolve the rest of society from the crappy things it does. As I get older, I find it more and more difficult to hold myself back from speaking my mind when something stinks. I call bull crap on how many people think of this word self-esteem.

If society does not like the way I look, the way I talk and walk, that’s on THEM, not ME. If I’m too short, too fat, too black, too Asian, too girly, too manly, not manly enough, not handsome enough, not pretty enough, SCREW THEM for thinking it, and for saying it. If someone laughs at my scars, my crutches, my back brace, my crooked legs, my stubby fingers, my wheelchair:  THEY’RE JERKS.

To be crystal clear:  It is not my responsibility to fit my square mind and body, into that round hole in their minds.

Show me someone with a low self-esteem, and 99% of the time, I’ll show you someone who has had moments of weakness because SOCIETY brainwashes us into thinking we all need to look the same, act the same, smell the same, and behave the same as the so-called PERFECT PEOPLE they believe we should all be.  Again: BULL CRAP!

Many people with low self-esteem, have had ninety-nine people who probably beat that person down to the ground, with their words and actions.  How is this a “self” problem, if one feels sad about being treated so poorly?

It’s not the person with low self-esteem who needs the most help, it’s those nasty ninety-nine people who need a lesson in manners.  It’s those ninety-nine bullies who are the ones who need serious therapy, and lessons on how to treat people better.

And across the globe, no group suffers more at the hand of society’s self-esteem gurus than people with disabilities.  We get told all the time, “Oh, there there, you just need to love yourself a little more. That will fix your self-esteem problems once and for all.”  BULL CRAP times one hundred!

Honestly, I want to take society’s perception of our self-esteem problems, and shove it up their “where the sun don’t shine” area.  Now THAT would make me, and my self-esteem feel MUCH better.

In my particular case, do you REALLY believe I would have ever EVER felt bad about being a dwarf, if strangers didn’t openly stare, point and even laugh at me? My low self-esteem was somehow caused by me, myself, and I alone, all without input from society?  Bull crap, bull crap, and bull crap again!

By the time I reached my thirties, I finally, once and for all, believed in myself. After reading tons of books, I finally understood that I was not the problem at all, and I developed a thicker skin.

All along, it was dealing with jerks that was making me sad.  Once I got rid of all the nasty things people said and did to me, once I got rid of anyone and everyone who did not treat me right, I felt better.  Once I ignored all the marketing that encourages us to spend and be like the beautiful pseudo important people in the media, I knew who had been at fault all along, and it was not me.

It’s like being a gardener:  If you want the prize vegetable to grow big and strong, you have to pull the weeds.  For those of us who look different, or have disabilities, once we  eliminate society’s biased and mostly negative opinions about us, we find ourselves feeling better naturally and without as much effort.

It will officially be springtime soon.  I wish all of us the best of luck in our beautiful gardens this summer, and getting rid of all those nasty stupid weeds!

Frank, circa 1973

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Posted in Bullying, Living with a disability | 13 Comments

Big Business and Their Government Nanny

In the USA, and also now Canada, there is an ever increasing conservative mantra of “smaller government is better”, and fear mongering of being controlled by a “nanny state”.  Hypocritically, most of that noise and propaganda comes from big business and their lobbyists.

In truth, big business is actually making sure that the government nanny is working and providing for THEM, and almost never for the good of their customers, especially when it comes to the foods and drinks we consume. Take sugar for instance, and high fructose corn syrup, where the scales are seriously tipped against the consumer, and I’m not talking about weight gain.

Did you know that sugar and corn production in the USA is subsidized by the government? This forces Canadian producers to keep their prices as low as possible, to remain competitive with their American counterparts. In a world like that, protecting the consumer from sugar is harder than pulling teeth from a reticent rhino.

For example: When NYC tried to ban “big gulp” sizes of soft drinks, there was a huge backlash, both from big business and their sugar-addicted clientele. The proposed law was never passed.

Profits and Brainwashing

Supported by the US government, these very large corporations then use those profits to brainwash a large portion of consumers through heavy marketing.  For those of you who think I’m exaggerating or being alarmist by using the term brainwashing, think about what advertising is: Highly scientific techniques, combined with outright lying about products, fine-tuned and repeated over and over again on as many platforms as only huge corporations can afford.  If that is not brainwashing, what is?

And ask yourselves: Why do big corporations need to brainwash us? Because the less healthy a food product is, the more big business needs to convince us that we actually want it. When was the last time you saw a commercial encouraging you to buy broccoli, or that you really need to put whole grain rice on your “must buy” list?  The answer probably is: NEVER!

Advertising (aka: BRAINWASHING) has an impact and increases profits, or else, why bother doing it?

Sugar Sugar Everywhere

You would expect sugar to be in soft drinks, desserts, and candies, but it also hides in the most unexpected places. A single serving of fruity yogurt typically has about six teaspoons of sugar: That’s more sugar than there is in a cup of chocolate pudding.

Do you really think that manufacturers would be bombarding yogurt with that much sugar if it were not subsidized and therefore dirt cheap?  Manufacturers pack yogurt full of sweetness so that consumers will crave it more, and NOT to make yogurt healthier.

Would the Sky Fall?

Try to imagine if all those whacked out sugar subsidies were instead put towards producing healthier foods, and making them affordable for EVERYONE. Even if every single person on the planet suddenly stopped eating highly processed foods, would big business, and all their profits disappear overnight, and would the world’s economies collapse? HARDLY!

Sure, some companies might go bankrupt, and it would be their just desserts for shoveling so much crap into our bodies.  The reality is, WE THE CONSUMER own our money, we decide where it goes, and it does not legally and naturally belong to the biggest corporations. If we all boycotted highly processed foods, new companies would crop up to feed the growing healthy demands of consumers.  Survival of the fittest at its best!

Healthy Variety Needed

For a long time now, we have known that for many things, variety is better:  The wider variety of foods we eat, generally speaking, the healthier we are.  The wider variety of crops farmers grow, the healthier the soil becomes.  The wider variety of companies there are, creating healthy competition, the healthier the economy becomes.  Do you see a trend here?

The ass-backwards subsidizing of unhealthy ingredients like sugar is creating a mono-culture mindset, and near monopoly of our food production. This alone is doing more damage to our economies, our health, and even our farmlands, than we will ever fully realize over the next few decades.

With increasing lobbying power residing in fewer processed food corporations, consumers have to be much more careful of what they buy.  I’m not suggesting that people cut sugar out of their diets entirely:  I have a sweet tooth, and understand how difficult that is.

Just be aware of the hidden sources of sugar, and how companies often succeed in brainwashing us into thinking their products are healthy, when they are clearly unhealthy. We have to protect ourselves, and realize now more than ever: The less processed foods we eat, the better it is for everyone, on so many levels.

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Need a Hug?

Good Friends:  Frank and Pat

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The son of a good friend, had a best friend, perhaps his only real good friend, move away.  Since then, this grade four boy has had trouble making friends, which got me to thinking about how I overcame the bullying I experienced as a child, and wound up in college with a solid core of very good friends, who were never ashamed to hug each other in public.

When it comes to friendship, it’s not how many friends we have, but, how friendly WE are.  Especially in the face of people who are being mean to us, or just being grumpy, it can be hard to be friendly.  Instead of getting angry at these people, when someone is mean to you, sincerely ask them “Does someone need a hug?”

And if they say, “Yes, I’d like a hug”, then, give them a friendly hug and say “I hope you feel better!”

I know, this sounds weird, especially since too many guys think it’s strange to hug other guys. But, if you try this trick consistently with people who are being mean to you, or who are just acting grumpy around you, even if they turn down the hug, I promise you, some people, the ones that matter, will turn into friends.

If hugging is REALLY not your thing, or you think you might get punched for offering a hug, simply look at the person who is being less than nice to you, and ask them, “Are you okay?”, and be prepared to listen to their answer.  Hear them out, don’t offer solutions, just let them vent, and say, “Wow, that really sucks!” or, “I’m sorry that happened to you!” when they finish telling you about their problems.

However, be prepared:  Huggers are often treated as strange, at first.  But when my hugging strategy is applied often enough, one day you will realize that you not only have good friends, but also those friends have turned into a group of public huggers!  JOY!

No matter how hard it is being a good person, be like a flowing river that wears down and polishes the rocks. Smoothing over peoples rough and angry edges is a SLOW process, but gentle flowing water eventually wins out.

Posted in Bullying, Living with a disability, Miscellaneous | 3 Comments

Sunshine Sheila

Lilly_of_the_ValleyCreative people, in order to reach their full potential, need many elements in order to succeed.  This post is about one of those elements outside of my family, who just keeps on sharing her warmth.

My wife Bonnie and daughter Annika are like the soil in which I’m allowed to grow and blossom. They sustain me, they nourish and love me, and provide a safe place for me to grow. I also have patrons, who water me with their money, to encourage me to follow my creative path. Third but not least on this list of crucial elements, I have a dear friend that today I’ve nicknamed “Sunshine Sheila”.

Sheila Quinn is like the sun to me, because she is so often full of warmth and energy. And unlike too many people in this world, she shares that energy with her friends and family, beaming down her rays like a spotlight, in order for YOU to bask in warmth and attention.

And Sheila beams on, despite the tons of clouds that try to block her out, and that she hardly ever bothers telling us about. Not only does Sheila look for the silver lining, she goes out there and creates that silver lining herself!

Sheila first cast her warm glow my way several years ago. Out of the blue, after hearing me on CBC radio, she contacted me to do a one on one interview for her own radio show Dishpan Hands. After forty-five minutes on the phone with Sheila, I knew I had a true friend:  She has been a big supporter of mine ever since.

Sheila put me in the spotlight a second time in the fall of 2014, when she whisked me off to Champlain College, Lennoxville, to give a speech about leadership. And last week, Sunshine Sheila did it again, when she contacted Breakfast Television, a local Montreal show. Here’s what Sheila wrote:

The Hooked on Schooldays campaign is on and I have a great story to go with it, in particular with Pink Shirt Day just around the corner. Frank Verpaelst is an author, musician and all-around awesome dude living in Montreal. He is the youngest of six children, three of whom have Dwarfism.

Frank was moved by my youngest son Leander’s struggles with fitting in at school, and wrote a children’s book that he has self-published called Leander the Late Bloomer. Talk about a wow moment for our family and friends, and for my son, who is in grade four.

Leander was so moved that he wrote his public speaking piece for school on Frank’s life (there’s full circle for you), and did his first-ever speech in front of the class. He was then selected to speak in front of the entire cycle two of his school (Knowlton Academy, in the Eastern Townships). He was selected as runner up, and replacement should one of the top three speakers not be able to attend the big school board-wide competition. He is BEYOND proud.

Frank makes such a huge difference in people’s lives. He also made the trip to Lennoxville to speak with the Cougar Ambassadors student leadership group at Champlain Regional College Lennoxville last year.

My point in sharing this story is: Without the love and support of family, and friends like Sheila, the job of ANY creative person is ten times harder. Creative people often are not business minded. Unless they are greatly supported by trustworthy people, artists must take precious creative time, and use it instead to become very good at the business and marketing side of things. Otherwise, artists get eaten alive by the troubles that life brings us all.

Writers need time to write. Musicians need time to rehearse. Artists need time to draw and paint. Above all, creative people also need time to experience life, to assimilate and process, and then repackage those observations for people to enjoy.

The real story about our “Breakfast Television” interview has very little to do with me. This post I hope will act as a mirror, and reflect the spotlight back onto my loving wife Bonnie and daughter Annika, my patrons, and my dear friend, Sunshine Sheila. Without their love and support, this flower would have wilted long ago.

(And thanks for the awesome work done by Aalia Adam, Pierre her cameraman, and the entire crew at Breakfast Television!)

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Jimmy Wrote a Book

Last year, Jimmy Fallon wrote a book. Yes, THAT Jimmy Fallon, the comedian, “Saturday Night Live” alumnus and current host for “The Tonight Show”. And Jimmy didn’t write just any book, he wrote a children’s book, like I just did. Unlike Jimmy however, I’m not rich and famous.

Jimmy’s book debuted at number five on USA Today’s best seller list. By comparison, after roughly two months, my book is ranked # 1972 at Lulu’s “print on demand” website. That translates to roughly twenty books sold, and a total profit of $49.38.

Now don’t get me wrong, from what I have read, Jimmy’s book “Your Baby’s First Word Will Be DADA” has a very cute premise: No matter how many times the dada animal says “dada” to his baby animal, the baby always says something else. For example, dada pig says “dada”, and baby pig answers “oink”.   This gets repeated about twelve times, each time by a different animal.

The point I’m trying to make is: We all try to succeed in a rigged system that rewards the rich and famous FIRST, way beyond the point that makes any sense at all. And the rest of us get to work as hard as we can, for what amounts to less than a fraction of 1% return for our efforts.

Although Jimmy’s book is a cute idea, it is still a one trick pony, like a Saturday Night Live sketch with one looping punchline that has overstayed its welcome. Mr. Fallon did not even draw the illustrations for this book he so painstakingly crafted. (If a font for sarcasm existed, that last phrase “painstakingly crafted” would be definitely sarcasm-cized.)

And talk about free advertising! The “Tonight Show” averages three to four million viewers every night.   Jimmy flogged his new book every chance he got, especially when a guest talked about children. Even just a hint of a word about any kid, and out popped Jimmy’s book “Dada”. C’mon Jimmy, stop flashing your hardcover! Are you some sort of literary exhibitionist, or are you that desperate for cash?

After a few months, Mr. Fallon probably made more money on this one book, than most authors will in their entire lifetime. While Mr. Fallon gets a ton of credit (from some people) for being an entertainer, I wonder how many copies he would have sold if he was a complete unknown.

Am I envious? 100% for sure on that. Should I be? Definitely not!

Envy will never help sell my own book, or create books that children will love. While I love what I do, and try my best to never be jealous of other artist’s successes, clearly, I still fail miserably.

Instead of just experiencing that envy, I put it to good use and now I owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Fallon. I began to ask myself, “If Jimmy had the guts to publish a book he did not even illustrate, why do I continue to sit on my ass, knowing I can illustrate my own funny poems?”

My mantra became “If Jimmy can publish a book, and shamelessly flog it, so can I!”

Now my own book is out there in the world, and my six year old loves it! Her friends and teachers love it. How cool is that?

Having worked through and expressed my feelings about fame and fortune, I realized: It’s not about the money, but how good we feel when we look at our creations. Let that be a lesson for not only me, but anyone reading this who might be holding back on their creative projects. If Jimmy Fallon (and Frank Verpaelst) did it, so can YOU!

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Put Me in Coach (How to Get Yourself in the Game)

Author’s Note: I try never to guarantee that you will succeed if you follow my advice. My stories and suggestions are more like “This is what happened to me, here’s what I tried. MAYBE it will work for you.”

And while I’m using a sports analogy in the title of this post, life itself is not a contest. I’m simply trying to tell a story that might ease any stress or shyness when it comes to trying something new.

I’ve always had a passion for trying things out, but for much too long I held myself back. Imagine you want to join friends who are playing a game of softball. Or you are at a party when someone picks up a guitar, and they start playing a song.

In your heart, you know you can swing that bat, or sing that song, but there you sit, waiting for what feels like an eternity for someone to ask you to play along. That desire, and not being asked to join, is one of the loneliest feelings I’ve ever experienced.

The harsh reality is, we live in a judgmental society. Especially if you have a disability, odds are, those invitations to join will be few and far between. How do you work around this?

Be your own coach, and get involved in the game of life, while making yourself and others happy in the process!

Honest Assessment

Before you join a group, or start a new activity, honestly assess your skills before starting. While winning or being the best is not the point, I find it helps if we don’t jump into the deep end of the pool right off the start.

Especially if it is a group activity, like a choir or a weekend sports league: If you think you are an expert, but are really a beginner, people might not be so supportive. If you are unsure of your skill level, get feedback from someone who has more experience.

As a musician who loves to perform, nothing frustrates me more than someone who says “Oh, I know this song!”, and then that person starts playing their musical instrument but  does not even know how the song begins. Then they fumble through the middle part, and walk away before the song is finished.

Joining groups or starting new activities is a good thing. Making promises you can’t keep, not such a good thing,

Join Friendly and Supportive Groups

At one time, I very badly wanted to sing, but constantly held myself back from performing in front of people. At around the age of twenty six, I finally joined a group of friends who sang in what they called a “bardic circle”.

No tryouts were required! The point was to just get together once a week, learn medieval songs to perform at various festivals, and have a bit of fun. I knew I was a beginner, and this informal group of singing friends was perfect for me.

These folks were VERY supportive. Yes, we pointed out when any of us were off key, or messed up lyrics, but we helped each other learn and grow without ever being mean. We were there to have fun singing, and that is exactly what we did.

Learn, Practice, Adjust, Repeat

For me, trying my best to learn something is much more enjoyable than coasting along. That’s just a personal preference. Whatever activity you are participating in, there are TONS of teaching materials on the internet. Here’s how I approach improvement:

  1. Learn as much as you can on the subject, appropriate to your current level of skill.
  2. Practice AND Perform what you learn from step 1.I bundle these two together, because I feel that performing IS the most important practice. Without feedback from an independent source, practice will only get you so far. To measure where we are truly at, writers need reader response, athletes compete against each other, musicians perform in front of an audience, etc.
  3. Adjust from your mistakes and miscues during step 2.  Also, take note of the things you did right in step 2.  Keep everything you did right!
  4. Repeat steps 1-3

Variety is the Spice of Life

Few of us are lucky to find even one activity that will keep us motivated for the rest of our life. If you someday start to get bored with an activity or group, it’s okay to slow down or even quit. It is perfectly fine to try other activities and groups, so long as you don’t abandon any responsibilities you may have.

Resting or getting into new hobbies will refuel or put a new twist on old interests. Being active is good, but go with your flow.

Relax and Enjoy

While I am encouraging participation, and trying your best, the point is to have fun and let go of stress.

And for those of you who worry about how long it will take for you to master a new skill, or think you are too old to try, I’m reminded of a quote:

QUESTION: Do you know how old I’ll be by the time I learn to play the piano?

ANSWER: The same age you will be if you don’t.

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Posted in Living with a disability, Miscellaneous | 4 Comments