Tag Archives: Obstacles

Changing the Face of Disabilities.

24 Feb

Last semester, I had a professor who I really connected with on a more personal level. Though we discussed my role as a student, we also discussed a role I didn’t think I could inhabit so fully: my role as an advocate, especially for those with disabilities. One evening following my night class with this specific professor, we discussed my life, my future, and all the many obstacles I’ve faced to get to where I am today. It was an incredible conversation, one in which I truly felt heard, and it’s something I will never forget.

Specifically, after much discussion regarding my Cerebral Palsy, my past of physical therapy, surgery, pain and hardship, my professor mentioned how she had been wanting to talk about my disability with me for quite some time but didn’t know how to broach the subject with ease. However, once I completed a project for her class in which I discussed the topic of disability discrimination, she knew I was comfortable and wouldn’t mind hearing any questions she had.

As we talked about my life and my future aspirations of writing my memoir and becoming a social worker, I slowly began to realize I had gained a mentor. I had gained someone who not only supported and believed in me, but someone who pushed me to look more closely at myself and my potential. Since I have only truly connected on a more personal basis with one or two other teachers throughout my life, this experience was incredible. It gave me a chance to open up, to share my life, in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do if I hadn’t had the courage to open up about my disability through a big research project which was presented to the whole class. Specifically, during our conversation, my professor said, “Amelia, you have the power to completely change the face of disabilities.”

I have striived to be an advocate for others with disabilities since as a kid, I wished I had had a kind of mentor who I could talk to about the difficulties of living with a physical disability. In my opinion, having the chance to talk to someone who had been there would have really helped me, so I long to be that person for others. Therefore, when my professor told me I have the power to completely change the face of disabilities, I was floored. I truly felt proud to receive praise of such a high honor. The simple fact that someone believed I had the potential to achieve something so lofty was amazing.

Recently, I thought about what my professor said last semester, and how great it made me feel. As I mentioned that conversation to a friend recently, she said, “Amelia, there’s something you don’t see: you already do change the face of disabilities.” I stared at my friend, confused, not understanding what she meant. She explained by saying, “You change the face of disabilities just by being yourself. You bring awareness to what Cerebral Palsy is. You provide special needs families with the hope that it’s possible to overcome incredibly difficult obstacles. But you know what the best part is? You overcome it all with a smile on your face the determination to keep going no matter what.” The wonderful thing is I didn’t see how I was changing the face of disabilities just by being myself. I imagined I wouldn’t be able to do that until I aimed to do something more tangible, something I could point to and say, “Yes, I brought about that change.”

It’s caused me to realize that maybe being an advocate and lifting others up has many parts. Maybe it doesn’t just involve the tangible changes we can point to with pride. Maybe it’s the little things too: the connections I strive to make with the families of children with special needs at my internship, the talks about CP and bullying I’ve given at elementary schools, and the connections I’ve strived to make with others with special needs through my blog.

Recognizing my abilities to change the face of disabilities definitely isn’t easy. Maybe it takes hearing it from others before I start to believe it. However, as I’ve been told, I’m already doing it just by being myself. As of now, there’s only one way to go in order to continue along this path: forward. I don’t know all the answers. I don’t know the secret to living life with a physical disability without letting it pull you into despair and self pity. But I do know one thing: All I have ever been is myself. Maybe that’s the only secret that matters.

My First Speaking Event: Cerebral Palsy and Bullying

30 Oct

Last Thursday, I had my first speaking event. I spoke to an elementary school book club in Asheville who had read Out of My Mind, in which the main character in the novel has Cerebral Palsy, the same disability I have. I was asked to come and speak about being bullied in school because of my Cerebral Palsy.

Below is the talk I read to the students and their parents of the book club (disclaimer: I have changed the names of people in order to protect confidentially):

When I was 7 years old, I played on a coach’s pitch baseball team, and there is one game I’ll never forget. I was up to bat, and my coach, Mr. Mark, stood on the mound smiling at me. He pitched the ball, and even though I hit the ball, it didn’t go far. It landed close to Mr. Mark’s feet. There was a player from the other team standing behind Mr. Mark, but Mr. Mark grabbed the ball and kept it away from the other player. At first, as I was running to first base, I didn’t know what was going on. I just knew that the first baseman hadn’t caught the ball yet, so I kept running. As I was almost near third base, the biggest grin spread across my face as I realized what Mr. Mark had done: he was giving me my very first home run. I remember running as fast as I could from third base to home plate, and as soon as my feet touched home plate, everyone in the crowd jumped to their feet and cheered for me. In that moment, I got to be a normal kid, and I got to feel the happiness that comes with completing a home run. If only for one night, I wasn’t a girl with Cerebral Palsy. I was a baseball player, a team member, and probably one of the happiest people in my hometown, if only for a moment.

Just like the character of Melody in Out of My Mind, I have Cerebral Palsy. Though I am not in a wheelchair or unable to talk like Melody, my Cerebral Palsy affects the way I walk because my muscles are really tight and because I don’t have very good balance. Because of being physically different, I was always an outcast in school. I had trouble making friends, and it was hard not having someone who knew what I struggled with on a daily basis. When I walk, it is very evident that I am different, and because of my visible differences, I was an easy target for bullying in school.

I had my first bullying experience when I was in kindergarten. At that age, I had to use canes to help me walk. Because of having to use canes, I wasn’t able to walk very quickly, and there was a girl named Ashley who enjoyed picking on me because she knew I wouldn’t be able to run away. Every day on the playground during recess, Ashley came up behind me and pulled my hair. It wasn’t a friendly pull either. She grabbed a fistful of my hair and yanked as hard as she could, laughing as I screamed in pain. She pulled so hard that I couldn’t even try to get away from her. Every day, I came home crying, and every morning, I woke up dreading having to go to school and see Ashley on the playground. I felt like crying when I realized I was completely alone. No one was sticking up for me, and it made me really sad. One day, my teacher, Miss Sandy, came up to me and told me to hit Ashley with one of my canes to help her realize that what she was doing was hurting me. See, Ashley was mentally disabled, so she didn’t know any better, and hitting her was one of the only ways Miss Sandy knew to make her stop. I never did hit Ashley though. I couldn’t do it. Hitting her would make me just like her: someone who wanted to hurt someone else. I don’t think Miss Sandy really wanted me to hit Ashley though. She was just trying to teach me the importance of trying to stand up for myself. In many ways, it felt impossible. How was I supposed to stand up for myself when it felt like I didn’t have a friend who would stand up for me?

I’ve struggled with forming friendships my entire life. As a kid, I wanted friends more than anything. I think that is the reason I never told a teacher that kids were making fun of me. I became afraid that once I told a teacher, the people who picked on me would call me a “tattle-tale” and the other kids would distance themselves even more. Because I was so physically different from the other kids in my class, all I wanted was to feel like I fit in. In my early friendships, many of the people who became friends with me were my friends out of pity. Even though they didn’t specifically tell me that, I could tell it was true. I could tell by the way they looked at me that they felt sorry for me. When I was young, I kept those friendships anyway because all I wanted was a place where I felt like I belonged. Many of those friendships didn’t last long though because most of the people who had been spending time with me left when they got tired of pretending to be my friend.

It wasn’t until I became friends with a boy named Tommy in first grade that things began to change. Tommy was the first person to visibly stick up for me. He confronted the people who picked on me, telling them it wasn’t okay to pick on someone who couldn’t help that she was different. Tommy’s friends laughed at him for sticking up for me, but he didn’t care. He stuck up for me anyway and was there for me no matter what. Tommy also saw the numerous people who became friends with me because they felt sorry for me. He knew how much that hurt me. Even though Tommy wasn’t disabled, he saw how I cried day after day when another person I thought was my friend just got tired of trying. Tommy’s presence in my life didn’t stop other kids from picking on me, but I began to feel a little less alone. Even now, I don’t have many friends. However, the few friends I do have are incredibly close to me, and I am happy to say that one of those friends is still Tommy.

When I was in fifth grade, I took a required PE class. In my PE class, dodge ball was typically the game of choice. Every week in PE, I was chosen last for dodge ball. I even remember one particular day when one of my friends, Allie, was the team caption. This made me excited because I thought: Yes, finally! I won’t be picked last because Allie will choose me since we are friends. The team picking began, and I waited with excitement for Allie to say my name. I looked towards her with a smile on my face, and my smile faded as I realized she was picking everyone else but me. Finally, it came down to Miranda, a girl who had just broken her leg, and me. It was Allie’s turn to pick, and I started to inch towards her. And then you know what happened? She chose Miranda over me! Miranda, the girl no one liked because she was so mean, and the girl who couldn’t even move as well as me because she had broken her leg. I couldn’t believe it!

As I got older, I thought the bullying would stop, but it didn’t. The summer after my sophomore year in high school, I attended a creative arts camp. One day I was walking back from a creative writing class, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a girl named Lauren imitating the way I was walking. I turned to her and said, “Hey, what are you doing?” “Imitating the way you’re walking,” Lauren said. When I asked her why, she explained that she was supposed to observe people as an assignment for her theatre class. Even though I told her she hurt my feelings, Lauren didn’t listen. As I walked away, I watched as she laughed and continued to imitate me. I ran back to my room and cried, so sad and frustrated that I was still getting picked on. Even at an older age, getting picked on hurt just as much, if not more. Lauren knew what she had been doing. She saw how I cried in front of her, and yet she still continued to imitate me and laugh at me. I couldn’t understand why she would be so mean on purpose. I ended up telling a staff member about what happened, and she contacted the teacher to find out that it was never a class assignment. The next day, though, something good happened. Lauren did the one thing I never thought she would ever do: she said she was sorry.

Being bullied, either physically or emotionally, is hurtful for anyone, but it’s especially hurtful if someone bullies you for something you have no control over, like a physical disability. My bullying experiences have affected me my entire life. I remember the details of every bullying experience I’ve ever had. I remember how alone and broken they made me feel, and how it seemed like the bullying would never stop. Typically, kids in school try to be different because they don’t want to blend in with the crowd. For them, it’s important to stand out. In my case, I have always been incredibly different, and all I have ever wanted was to be normal. My differences have never stopped me from trying to be as independent and normal as possible though.  I have Cerebral Palsy, and I am a survivor.

Speaking at this event was an incredible experience. I was nervous to speak about my bullying experiences since they were a part of my life I had never verbally discussed before. However, it was such a relief to finally talk about being bullied, and it gave me a sense of closure. It was also wonderful to hear from the kids in the book club and answer their questions. One girl in particular asked what my best grade in school was and what was my worst. It truly made me smile because I realized how wonderful it is to hear questions from kids. They make connections many of us as adults seem to have lost as we have gotten older, or maybe kids are just never nearly as shy to ask whatever seems to pop into their head. Either way, it was a great evening. I have even been asked to come back to that same elementary school to speak to the fifth graders, and my contact information has been passed on to two other elementary and middle schools in Asheville. I suppose it’s time to make myself some “business” cards!

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The Disability Fight: It Never Ends, Does It?

23 Jan

I am still incredibly self-conscious in regards to the physical aspects of my disability. Though I may have reached a point where I am able to talk about my disability with more ease than ever before, I still haven’t developed a sense of confidence when it comes to the physical differences related to my Cerebral Palsy. I shrink away from the differences, silently wishing they were a part of someone else and not me.

When I see the severe curvature of my lower back in a mirror, I cringe. In the summer, when I give in and put on a bathing suit because of the heat, I hate to look down and see the scars on my legs from my intense surgeries. In just one moment, I am transported back to my intense surgeries, all the physical therapy I endured following those surgeries and the nights I’d wake up screaming and in tears because of the pain that seemed to come from everywhere all at ounce. When I am about to walk inside of a building and I see the reflection of myself in a door, I look away. I don’t have to look at my own reflection to know the way I’m swaying side to side as I walk with a visible stiffness in my legs. I don’t have to look at my reflection to know the way my knees still knock inward and the way I’m up on my tiptoes despite the operations I had to straighten my femurs and try to decrease the spasticity in my legs. I can formulate a picture in my head of myself walking that’s so accurate I want to scream. I’d give anything to not know every single detail of how the way I walk is different from how the average person walks. A part of me hates myself for my self-consciousness in regards to my walking. I spent my entire childhood going through intense surgeries and 15 years of physical therapy to reach a point where I could walk on my own without assistance and be as independent as possible. It’s not that I am not proud I can walk. I am. I know I should be jumping up and down on a daily basis because I am able to walk. But I don’t. I just can’t make myself do it.

If you were to ask me whether I’d choose to have CP over not having it, I’d say I’d rather have it because it’s made me into a much stronger person. But if you were to ask me if there’s anything I’d change about myself, I’d tell you that all I want is to look like everyone else. I don’t want to always be the target of stares from toddlers, and even adults, in grocery stores. I want to be able to stop having to cringe at the severe curvature of my lower back or look away from my scars and the pain I remember and still feel. I want to stop having to look away from my reflection because my knees are knocking together and I’m up on my tiptoes. In a way, that’s what all of the physical therapy and surgeries were for. It was to get me as independent as possible, or as close to being like everyone else as I could get. But even with all that work, I’m so far from being where I wish I could be. My balance sucks. I can’t go up or down stairs without a railing. I can’t put on a pair of pants without needing to be in a seated position. And on the days when I think of the things I can’t do and I’ve fallen more than what is normally expected of me during the course of a day, I cry. I cry because it is so, so hard to keep fighting this. No, I am not faced with a life-threatening health problem, so I’m not fighting for my life necessarily. But I’m still fighting just as hard. And it takes every ounce of strength in my body to wake up every morning and make the choice to face it all…again and again, even though all I really want to do sometimes is pull the covers over my head and hide.

The femoral derotational osteotomy: The longest marathon.

14 Jan

I was born with Cerebral Palsy. In my case, I was born with my femurs angled inward and my hips tilted forward, and my angled femurs caused my feet to point in as well. Therefore, as a kid, when I would walk, I’d end up tripping over my feet, which made it harder for me to walk properly. On October 8, 2001, I had my first intense operation, a femoral derotational osteotomy. In some ways, it doesn’t seem like that long ago. The femoral derotational osteotomy was an intense operation in which the surgeons straightened out my femurs in order to allow me to walk straight. Rods were also used in order to keep my legs straight, but they would be taken out the following year once everything had fully healed. Even though the operation itself isn’t something I remember since I was asleep, I do remember the conversation I had with the OR nurses before I was put under. When the nurses looked down at me on the operating table and asked me to tell them about my animals, I proceeded to include the names of my pets at home as well as the names of all of my stuffed animals (and I had a lot). The nurses just smiled. They didn’t seem to mind.

When I woke up in the ICU, I had on two long-leg casts that were connected by a bar in the middle. I also had an epidural, so I couldn’t feel the full extent of my pain. However, those first few days in the ICU were spent not eating as much jello as I could manage, but continually getting sick from the anesthesia that had put me under during the operation. Trust me, having a nurse come over with a tube to suck the vomit out of your throat is completely disgusting, but it’s better than having the full taste of vomit in your mouth by waiting for it to come all the way up. Though I did eventually leave the ICU and Shriner’s after my first intense operation, I had to keep those long-leg casts on for the next 8 weeks, and during those 8 weeks, I became completely dependent on my parents. They had to help me shower, help me go to the bathroom, and help me change my clothes among many, many other things. It was only the beginning of the very long road to gaining my own independence.

In many ways, the femoral derotational osteotomy was the beginning of a marathon that would last much longer than just a few days. It was the beginning of the complete hell I would go through over the next 6 years until I reached the age of 15. By the age of 15, I had endured 3 intense surgeries, 15 years of physical therapy, and more pain that I ever thought possible. However, despite all of that, I persevered. I pushed through because I knew it was the only thing that would allow me to be independent. In the beginning, after that first operation, my parents were helping me do everything. I was completely dependent on them. However, by age 15, I was not only independent, I was gearing up to leave home the following year to attend an all-girls’ boarding school in North Carolina. Though leaving home was and always will be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done (not including my operations and all the intense physical therapy that followed them), it was also the best decision I ever made for myself. As with so many other things in my life, I’ve learned from it all, but more than that, I have been able to better understand the person I am supposed to become. Though I would have never imagined that I’d be using experiences from my own life in order to relate to and lift up other kids with CP and other disabilities, it’s beginning to feel like a permanent place I belong.

In the right hands, a memoir is the flecks of gold panned out of a great, muddy river. A memoir is those flecks melted down into a shapable liquid that can be molded and hammered into a single bright band to be worn on a finger, something you could point to and say, “This? Oh, this is my life.” Everyone has a muddy river, but very few have the vision, patience, and talent to turn it into something so beautiful. That is why the writer matters, so that we can not only learn from her experience but find a way to shape our own. -Ann Patchett, afterword of Autobiography of a Face

Monday’s inspiration.

12 Nov

Life in general was cruel and offered only different types of voids and chaos. The only way to tolerate it, to have any hope of escaping it, I reasoned, was to know my own strength, to defy life by surviving it. -from Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

What keeps you going.

26 Aug

 

“What keeps you going isn’t some fine destination but just the road you’re on, and the fact that you know how to drive. You keep your eyes open, you see this damned-to-hell world you got born into, and you ask yourself, ‘What life can I live that will let me breathe in & out and love somebody or something and not run off screaming into the woods?” -Barbara Kingsolver

To Grace.

15 Apr

Grace,

I’ve been thinking about you a lot today. Even though I won’t be able to spend time writing my book until this semester is over in 2 weeks, I’ve been thinking about all the things that I want to tell you…all the things I want you (and other kids with CP) to realize. But at 19, I don’t know what they all are. I’m still learning a good many of them myself.

The truth is, I’m scared. I’m scared of how my CP is going to affect me as I get older. It’s limiting now, but I’m afraid of how it’ll limit me further on down the road. At 19, my back pain is what bothers me the most. Sometimes I have to completely stop in my tracks when my back spasms. It’s different from the spasms that I had in my legs after all of my surgeries. It’s not as jerky as the spasms were in my legs, but it still hurts enough to cause to me stop, place my hand on my lower back, and try to breathe through the pain. I’m afraid this pain will only get worse, and that scares me. There is so much I want to do in my lifetime. I want to travel, be a counselor, write more books, have a family….all of it. Granted, most of that is a ways away, but at this point I can’t tell myself that it’s not a possibility. I just can’t.

Even though I know I will cross the hurdles when I come to them, it’s no less scary. I know that you know this. However, ever since I’ve known you, I’ve never seen fear in your eyes. I don’t know if, like me, you’ve placed that fear in a box in the back of your mind, but either way, I sit and wonder what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling. Even though you’re 11, I’ve wanted to sit with you and talk to you about how you feel about having CP. But honestly, I don’t know how I would phrase the question, and I don’t know if I could bear to hear the answer. I don’t even know if I’d be able to get the question out fully before I started crying. If you sat and told me that you’re scared and it hurts and you don’t understand why you’re different and how you wish you could be like everyone else, I’d cry. Not because I’d feel sorry for you, but because I’d be able to say that I know exactly how you feel. I still feel some of those emotions. Not always, but they creep up every now and then.

I don’t doubt that you’d say something about how you’ve stayed strong through your faith and through God. Though I am happy that you have your belief in God to turn to, I don’t have that. Not because I can’t have it, but because I don’t want it. It took me a long time to figure out why. I knew there was a reason that I didn’t believe in God, but I just couldn’t place my finger on it. After some insight from my best friend Skidmore, I realized that it’s because I don’t see how someone (God) could allow me to face so much emotional and physical pain at such a young age. I’ve been enduring struggles ever since I was born, and I can’t “praise” someone who is okay causing me so much physical and emotional pain. I went through phases where I went to church, but then I just realized that I wasn’t getting anything out of it. However, I know that you get so much out of your faith, and I’m glad. Hang on to that. I get that kind of strength through my own writing, and it’s a strength I have rediscovered over the past five months. And honestly, it has brought me so far. I have never been able to talk as openly about my CP as I have in the last five months.

Last month, during a discussion I had with my uncle and his girlfriend, I described myself as a firecracker. At the time, I didn’t really understand why I made the connection between myself and a firecracker, but now it makes perfect sense. When you light a firecracker, it has to build up lots of pressure before the beauty can be released. I feel like this describes our situation so well, Grace. We have to endure all these struggles (pressure) before we can reach the point of recognizing our inner strength and true passion in life. I want you to know that I love you, and I love the gorgeous smile that you give me whenever you see me. Even though my heart aches when I see you struggle or when I realize all the hardships that you have yet to face, I also know that it’s something you have to face on your own. However, I only hope that one day my words can help you as you have helped me.

I remember one day when I came over to watch you while your Mom took David to Columbia, and you wanted to go upstairs to play on the computer. While I had been there, I was silently hoping that you would want to stay downstairs, because I had no idea how I was going to help you if you wanted to go upstairs. Like me, you have trouble with stairs. However, I normally use my upper body strength as my main support, but since you don’t have that, you’ve got to use your legs as much as you can (which leads to needing help with balance). You told me that I needed to get behind you to make sure you didn’t fall, but as you said this, I laughed because I could picture me trying to keep you from falling and then hitting the ground myself. I knew I wouldn’t be able to fully support you because I needed one hand in order to get up the stairs myself. Eventually, due to you practically crawling up the steps, we both made it without falling. I was so relieved. I had been so worried about falling myself, and the thought of you falling with me was just too much to handle.

Through that experience though, you looked up to me. Since I was older, even though we both were limited, I had to be the one to help you. However, realizing that I couldn’t do much due to my own limitations hurt. I wanted to help you so much, but I just couldn’t. I think writing this book is my way of helping you in the only way that I know how. I’ve gained so much insight and strength since starting this book, and I want you to know one day that you have that same strength within you. We’ve both faced so much, Grace…way more than people our own age have faced yet. And even though that really sucks, it’s also kind of cool because it means that when people we know get to the point where they are scared or in pain, we can say that we understand. We can say that even though things hurt a lot now, in time they will be released, just like a firecracker on the Fourth of July.

Keep on smiling.

Love,

Amelia