Juana Ortiz doing physical therapy.

When I Realized I Shouldn't Hide My Cerebral Palsy

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When I Realized I Shouldn't Hide My Cerebral Palsy

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Back in high school, in addition to my academic studies, I also had physical therapy once or twice a week. Jim was my physical therapist and our sessions were held on the first floor in the main hallway, where people could see me as I followed Jim’s instructions on how to walk.

One day while I was having therapy, my school counselor passed by and saw me walking back and forth, trying to step with my heel down. The counselor approached us and asked me if I preferred to go to another spot where I would not be seen. When I replied that I would, I had no idea what that would lead to. She looked for a hidden place by the auditorium, where I could hardly be seen by others. Jim and I followed her to the spot.

A couple of minutes later, when the counselor left, Jim set up two chairs, one for himself and one for me. I saw the expression on his face and realized he was not happy. Jim looked me straight in the eye and asked me if I was satisfied with my counselor’s suggestion. I replied, “Yes.” I didn’t know much English yet, but Jim’s body language said it all. He was very upset. Then he told me, “Tomorrow, don’t come to school. Stay home.” At that moment I realized I shouldn’t have accepted my counselor’s suggestion.

The next day, Jim came back and apologized. We continued our sessions in the hallway. From that moment on, the counselor didn’t mention anything, even if she saw us in the hallway. As a young adult, I had just learned one of the most important lessons of my life. I learned that although I had cerebral palsy, I shouldn’t hide myself from others. I have to accept myself in order for others to accept me. Now, I realize the irony of the situation, because in spite of having been accepted by my family, at that moment I didn’t accept myself and I wanted to hide.

Jim passed away a few years later. I wish I could go back in time and thank him for what he taught me. Back then I was immature and took for granted the valuable lessons he tried to teach me. Jim wasn’t just a therapist. He was also a friend who always accepted me for who I was.

Ironically, 18 years later I had another personal experience, which makes me think of the day when I wanted to hide. I have big teeth and most of the time, my mouth is partly open, probably due to my CP. I never saw anything special in my smile, but it has always attracted attention from others. People often tell me I have a nice smile. Once, someone told me, “Don’t let anyone prevent you from smiling.”

Since I have a few risk factors that can contribute to the decline of my physical health – CP, my age, and my gender – it is important for me to remain physically active, so I go regularly for physical therapy. One of the other clients at the therapy facility, a sweet lady named Virginia told me recently, “What a nice smile. I love your smile.”

That day after therapy I went back home. I kept thinking of her words and asked myself, how can a stranger be able to see the beauty hidden in my smile, when others tend to only see my disability? The answer was very simple. Virginia focused on my ability to smile and not on my disability — unlike my former high school counselor.

Juana Ortiz’s book “I Made It” is available at www.juanamortiz.com and on Amazon.

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