Juana Ortiz reading Photo by Mark Hillringhouse.

What 'Normal' Means to Me as a Person With Cerebral Palsy


In a world where having a “normal body” is a societal expectation, living with a physical disability can be a challenge. First impressions and quick judgments are often made based on appearances. As a person with cerebral palsy, I ask myself the following questions: What does the word “normal” really mean? If my body doesn’t meet these characteristics, then what am I?

My body doesn’t have straight lines; it’s curled. My feet seem impossible to lift up from the floor as people normally do when they walk. My mouth is always open, like the letter “U.” When I talk, I sound drunk, even though I’m not. To many people, I must have seemed alien, like someone from another planet. I used to hear people say I wasn’t a normal human being.

On different occasions I have gone out to eat with my family, and the waiters have handed out the menu to them, but not to me. They asked my parents what I would like to eat instead of asking me. It makes me feel like I’m an object on the table, a plate or a glass. Something that people can see but assume that this “object” can’t talk, can’t respond. In most cases, although it bothers me, I try to let go. After all, it’s not their fault; they are just responding to what is outside the norm created by society.

Body image plays a major role in terms of self-worth.  The way other people treat us has a powerful influence on how we see and feel about ourselves. Other people’s perceptions of us can affect us for the rest of our lives. It took me years to become aware of how influenced I was by the way I had been perceived by others and how I perceived myself.

Back in the Dominican Republic where I grew up, it was uncommon to see someone in the street with a physical disability. When I was standing outside in front of my house, some kids would stick out their tongue or try to imitate the way I walked. Even in my 20s, I was still carrying that burden inside. I never told anybody how I felt about my body and living with cerebral palsy.

It wasn’t until my early 30s when I was introduced to therapeutic writing that I became aware that I am more than a body. By using this method, I started expressing myself in a way I hadn’t before. When I first started to write about my past experiences, I was shocked to realize how much pain I was still carrying inside. At the same time, I was feeling relief because I was letting out all my pain. Therapeutic writing gave me confidence and brought forth my talent as a writer. My long years of silence came to an end.

Writing about my life has helped me to have a better understanding of who I am and to what extent living with a disability has affected me. Through writing, I learned it is OK to become connected to my emotions, even if they are causing me pain, and to let myself cry because they are part of my experience as a human being. For years, I was afraid of expressing how tough it can be to live with cerebral palsy, but I’m not afraid anymore.

Since practicing therapeutic writing has helped me to better cope with my condition, I decided to learn more about it.  The psychologist and researcher Dr. James W. Pennebaker has published several books and articles focusing on this subject. In his book “Writing to Heal,” which was published in 2004, Dr. Pennebaker points out important findings regarding expressive writing:

“Since the first expressive writing studies in the 1980s, dozens of similar experiments have been conducted. The first studies focused almost exclusively on physician visits for illness. As the number of studies increased, it become clear that writing was a far more powerful tool for healing than anyone had ever imagined. Only now, twenty years later, are we beginning to appreciate its impact.”

Thanks to the habit I developed by writing about my physical limitations and the challenges I face on a regular basis, I know from first-hand experience what a “powerful tool for healing” writing can be. Now I know what the word “normal” means. Normal means to be myself. Normal means I am a human being like anybody else who doesn’t have a physical limitation. Normal means I am able to breathe, love, live and laugh like everybody else.

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

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Photo by contributor.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION

Related to Cerebral Palsy

Paul smiling.

To Senator Rob Portman, From a Family That Relies on Medicaid

Sometimes you just can’t sit around, complain and do nothing. So when a fellow mom of a child with a disability enlisted our help to share our story and what Medicaid cuts and caps will (are) doing to our family, I answered the call. My husband Paul and I headed to a meeting to discuss [...]
Richelle on TV.

A Thank You to My 'Frenemy,' Cerebral Palsy

What would I say to you, cerebral palsy? As a child I didn’t really know you very well at first. You introduced yourself to me at 11 months old. I began to understand “dis”ability at age 2. You had me cut open, rearranged and refocused. Scars from surgeries began to signify my strength. Not everyone [...]
Charisse Hogan, childhood photo of her using a walker.

As School Begins, Please Teach Your Children About Disabilities

As summer begins to come to an end and students began to prepare for a new school year, I would like to remind others of how important it is to teach children about disabilities, about differences. I hope by sharing some of my personal story, people will realize how important this is. I was born [...]

Navigating My First Day of College With Cerebral Palsy

Waking up on the first day of college at the end of January last year, my stomach was a complete ball of butterflies. I was rushing around my room pulling clothes out to put on, putting on makeup and getting my shoes. I had spent the past week getting my books and buying school supplies. [...]