When Other People's Discomfort Limits Me as a Person With a Disability

The first time you try anything it’s often uncomfortable. Riding a bike feels strange until we become accustomed to the repeated motion. Speaking in front of a large group of people can be intimidating until you have done it a number of times. Countless quotes and numerous philosophers remind us that discomfort is good; it helps us to grow and change, becoming better versions of ourselves. If we all agree discomfort can be good, then why are so many people afraid to let me feel uncomfortable?

Every year in elementary school we took the Presidential Physical Fitness test. As part of this challenge, students were asked to walk or run a mile. Up until fifth grade, I was content to sit on the sidelines, cheering for my peers as they completed the race. But at age 10 I decided I wanted to give it a try. It didn’t matter if I fell, finished last or even if I didn’t finish at all; I just wanted to see if I could do it.

When I approached the gym teacher declaring my intention, she flatly said no, arguing it would be too hard and frustrating for me. In a pathetic attempt to include me, she had me collect bottle caps given to me by my fellow students as they completed each lap of the challenge. My job was to ensure they weren’t cheating, a far cry from actually walking the mile.

In the years since I often think back on this experience. While I understand why my 10-year-old tween self didn’t challenge the teacher’s decision, I still don’t understand her logic. The fact that I walked differently and more slowly than the rest of my peers was never a secret or a surprise to me. No one could protect me from the image I saw when walking towards a mirror or my reflection in the window. If I was willing to try something new and be uncomfortable, why was this teacher so against the thought of my taking the risk?

Was it a desire to protect me? It was no more likely I would hurt myself walking circles on the grass field behind the school than while riding my bike or playing basketball in my driveway — and beyond that, I wasn’t afraid of falling. Was my teacher so afraid of her own discomfort that she couldn’t stand the idea of a student’s discomfort?

I can understand the parental tendency to remove obstacles from a child’s path, but what does this teach them? My cerebral palsy has given me countless obstacles, and while I never appreciated any of them at the time, there is no question they have benefited me. Most athletic pursuits are uncomfortable for me, at least in the beginning, but if I avoid this discomfort, I limit my own abilities and never learn my full capabilities. So do me a favor, give yourself permission to be uncomfortable.

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