What I Learned When I Stopped Trying to Hide My Cerebral Palsy

I told myself I needed to suck it up and get over it. I was just reading my old IEPs (Individual Education Plan) in the name of university research. And yet, as I read the front page of my primary school plan, I was still struck by an acute sense of difference, tempered by thoughts of how strange it was to see myself summarized in a little bold box of “strengths.”

According to the perennially well-meaning teachers and support staff with whom I (very reluctantly) worked, these were the things I was good at: I was an avid reader and enjoyed creative writing, I liked speech and drama, I had a good memory, I was an enthusiastic learner (apparently my enthusiasm equated to high achievement) and finally (I’m direct-quoting here), I was aware of my limitations, but I would always have a go.

In my 10-year-old mind (around the time when these IEPs were a thing I didn’t really want to know about, talk about or acknowledge in any way), that was possibly the worst backhanded compliment ever. I took umbrage at the implication of incapability cloaked as a “strength,” and it was from that point forward that I decided to adopt a stance of steadfast denial whenever my teachers looked to involve me in setting goals for my IEP. But some days (especially in high school), my unflagging desire to reject all offered assistance in order to maintain my façade of conformity grew harder to sustain. My legs would ache from the many stair climbs I traversed throughout my day, and I’d get upset – not visibly, obviously, because that would give the game away – when I couldn’t draw a perfect circle with my compass, or trace and color my map with the same precision and attention to detail as everyone else. But for me, maintaining that veneer of “normalcy” trumped any pain or frustration I experienced.

I have just completed my undergraduate university studies, and it was only recently, when I was preparing a paper for a national education conference (take that, teachers who pigeon-holed me during school!) that I autonomously chose to “expose” my cerebral palsy to a wider audience than my family and school teachers. And the reactions were nothing like I was expecting. That fact that I have a disability was (blessedly) not a big deal to my university lecturers. They didn’t look at me like my CP is something contagious. They didn’t look at me with that calibrated combination of pity at my “situation.” And they didn’t look shocked that I have a disability, but I look nothing like people with disabilities are “supposed” to look. And it has only been since then – at the ripe old age of 21 – that I started to feel like I could be defined by more than what was in that little bold box.

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