Woman with long hair looking up hopefully.

A few months ago, our Catholic Women’s Group had a night that focused on inner beauty. One of the nicest things we did that night was to affirm each other for the unique qualities that made us beautiful. All our photos were hung up around the room, and we went around and anonymously wrote what we admire about each person. When I saw my own page at the end of the night, my mouth dropped… I was so touched to read all the lovely compliments! The most popular to describe yours truly? “You are so strong.” To be perfectly honest, strong isn’t a word I’d put at the top of the list to describe myself, so reading these were very humbling. The activity made me ponder the question, “How did I get here?”

The last five years of my life have been a whirlwind of self-acceptance and a constant search for the right perspective as cerebral palsy accompanies me into my adult life. At 17, I was telling a very different story than I am today. As a teenager, I had a deep sense of yearning to know what it felt like to live in a body that was not affected by CP. I was constantly grappling with the thoughts of what my life could be like if I didn’t limp or have frequent muscle pain. The fact that cerebral palsy would be forever felt incredibly daunting to my young mind. Frustration with my physicality consumed me, and the pressures of high school only made things more difficult. I didn’t want all of this… limping, being called “the gimp,” the tightness, the falling. Emotionally, I was incredibly fragile. CP became my own personal black hole, and slowly I was being sucked deeper and deeper into it.

I can clearly remember the night when I realized I needed to find the strength to carry on. At the time, I wasn’t one to pray frequently, but I had a very special and life-changing conversation with God that night. The revelation came suddenly; I don’t quite have the words to explain it. But I do remember feeling an overwhelming sense of, “God loves me. He gave me CP for a reason that is bigger than myself, and how I’m living now is not the way I’m meant to live my life.”

It hit me that each of us gets a limited amount of time on this earth, and for me to be able to live my life to the fullest, I owed it to myself to embrace my CP for all that it is. CP touches my identity in a deep way, and I came to understand that the most valuable way to live and accept CP could not be accomplished through frustration and hopelessness, but rather gentleness and ability to see the positive.

Of course, this change in perspective did not happen overnight. But at first, the “fake it till you make it” method actually worked. I jumped into my new outlook with both feet and wouldn’t allow myself to acknowledge the negative. Anytime I was feeling down, I quickly found myself scrolling through Pinterest for a relatable quote I could add it to my arsenal of optimism. There were post-its with these quotes stuck all over my desk and posted on my social media pages. The power of words helped me begin to think differently about my life, as I was able to apply little bits of wisdom into the bigger context of having CP.

On the surface, surrounding myself with positive energy certainly helped. But the intention to live my best life has gone much deeper and has matured over the years. Me being “OK” with the idea of having this medical condition forever has taken the help of professionals, mentors, and loving family and friends. At 22, I am now faced with the realities of post impairment syndrome, which basically means that although the initial brain injury that caused my CP won’t become worse, spasticity is catching up with my body as I age. As one can imagine, this makes living with CP and chronic pain more difficult.

This has particularly brought my awareness to the relationship between how my mental and physical health are interconnected. When in pain, the body has a tendency to become more anxious, and when anxious, an individual becomes more aware of physical pain. There are days when my pain is at a level where I’d just rather pack my leg in ice and curl up with a blanket. But I often don’t have that luxury. I can’t always control my pain level, so I’ll usually look towards putting my energy into something I can control. Focusing on school and having good conversations with people definitely help. And for the record, I’ve never been denied a hug from a friend when I’ve asked for one. Hugs are amazing painkillers!

People continue to ask me, “How do you stay so positive?” At the end of the day, living a positive life with a chronic condition is all about balance. Being aware of my emotional energy and how I want to spend it each day is incredibly important. Allowing myself to acknowledge and feel the emotions on the hard days is actually constructive — it helps me accept, recharge, and continue on. Finding joy in the small things, taking time to laugh, drawing strength from my faith, and remembering to be grateful are all crucial for me. And when a day is particularly draining and I go to bed not feeling like I handled the ups and downs in the best way, that’s when it’s important to forgive myself and try again tomorrow. When the time comes, my goal is to be able to look back with a smile and say that with CP and all, I did my best.

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Thinkstock photo by Berdsigns.


It’s just my legs.

It’s not a lie really, more of an omission.

Growing up with cerebral palsy, I’ve been explaining my disability since well before I could walk. After all these years I’ve gotten very good at catering to various audiences.  Sometimes it’s a pair of kindly senior citizens in the street, more often than not it’s a curious child and their parents.

Information overload is to be avoided. Time is of the essence.

A quick and simple sentence that gets the point across, even if that point leaves something to be desired.

It’s easy to spot crutches, a wheelchair or a walking frame. It’s more difficult to see the state of my white matter, let alone understand the reams of paperwork that describe my condition.

It’s not so easy to acknowledge that my disability isn’t quite as one-dimensional as I’d like it to be.

Honestly? There’s a hell of a lot I’d like you to know about CP.

1. If it’s connected, it’s affected.

My entire body is linked with my less-than-perfect brain. Every muscle, every nerve fiber, every inch of me, from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. Thankfully, most of my problems are in relation to motor skills, particularly my legs and feet. Of course, my fingers get a look in too. But I’ve made my peace with never being a star seamstress or a master chef. It’s the little things that tend to bug me. I hate asking for the time because I’m not confident reading the clock face. I hate being seen as dopey when I lose my way in a familiar place due to topographical agnosia.

2. I feel everything.

Words might fail me, but I still feel. My lower limbs are just part of a different world, beyond control or comprehension. Usually, it appears as though I feel too much, because I react differently to stimuli. A friend approaching from behind to tap me on the shoulder will be treated to an awful shudder, which if I’m lucky, won’t turn into a full-blown spasm. Sudden, loud noises will trigger an adrenaline rush. This fight or flight response will cause my muscles to contract rather painfully, setting me on edge for quite some time. You have been warned: no surprises!

3. I’ve got a one-track mind.

Walking out and about can be quite tough. My friends and family might have learned not to engage me in deep and meaningful conversation while moving, but I can’t very well ask the world to stop turning. I’m sorry if I didn’t see our neighbor or hear the advert on the loudspeaker. I’m a little preoccupied with staying upright, so environmental processing has got to take a backseat. If I have any extra energy or concentration, it’s probably dedicated to worrying about a potential fall. Please be patient.

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Thinkstock photo by Eriyalim.

I came to the realization very recently that I’ve changed a lot as a person. This whole embracing change attitude has really made a shift in me. Life can show you who and what matters in an instant. I am not sure how to put this, but I don’t miss the old me at all. I always used to feel timid, scared, apprehensive. Like I was back in middle school and even high school.

I no longer miss the people who chose to leave my life, the ones I had gravely mistaken as my friends; my family. That whole “they’ll be my friend forever” type of thinking is long gone now. In the past year, I can honestly say the one lesson life has taught me is that life can show you the person you were truly meant to be. The moment you place yourself right in front of one of your greatest fears, you have two choices: cower in a corner or face it.

If you asked me a year ago if I’d be where I am today, not just personally, but also gaining speed professionally, I’d tell you outright: absolutely not. Who am I kidding; I am not the same person I was seven-plus years ago. It’s like that line from one of my favorite songs by the rock band Shinedown, “Dangerous.” “I own my story, and I won’t be sorry and neither should you.” I have gone from carrying the weight of an extremely heavy heart with a wall built up, to where you have to know the password to gain entry to me and my life. A year ago this past July, I started my blog, The Abler, with a simple goal in mind —  to shed light, education, and knowledge on topics people either make too many assumptions about or dismiss altogether because they simply don’t know what it is or how to help. I met some incredible people. I met myself along the way too.

When I was little, the corner of any room felt safe to me. While the world felt too big and confusing, sometimes I could sit somewhere far off in the distance and watch people, pay attention to all the things people seem to ignore or dismiss as typical. I never had any issues with kids my own age, it was always the adults who made mountains out of speed bumps. They didn’t realize what it meant to be limited to an extent that affected how you did things, lived your life. They understood all the textbook versions and variations, but at the end of the day they closed their books and went on with their lives. That was their definitions of “typical” and that’s OK. What wasn’t OK was the rejection they replaced their misunderstanding with.

I guess you could say that was a small glimpse into the real world, and adult thinking. I wish I could tell you I understand adults more now that I am one myself, but sadly adults are more confusing than ever. Lately, I have seen the word inclusion a lot. Why are you more concerned with being included by groups of people to feel a part of something? Why can’t we just include ourselves into our own stories first, and make what they stand for more noticeable all on our own? Inclusion is a great concept for children, but adults can make their own way with or without feeling included or invited by another person(s). Living your life on your terms does not require an invitation. The world creates enough roadblocks, so why not try and figure out how to turn it into a door for yourself?

That’s another lesson I have learned in the last several months. No opportunity is a missed opportunity unless you let it quietly float by you like a cloud in the sky. I am no longer that little girl in the corner of a room playing it safe. I now understand that the adults were ill equipped to understand the needs of a child who needed a little more attention and understanding when it came to navigating the world with a physical disability. I had yet to learn that the world was not nearly as ill-equipped as when that child grows into an adult. I am not the type of a person to hold a grudge toward anything or anyone that has ever wronged me in some way. I take the lessons I have learned from the person or situation and move on.

The moving on part was always the difficult part for me. I just couldn’t understand why people didn’t seem to “get it.” Having a disability is not a one size fits all situation. And to be honest I still don’t get it. Does anyone remember the old school Sesame Street, “one of the things does not go together.” For me, that’s what it feels like society tries to do with people with any kind of disability. The reality is I can’t erase my disability, and honestly if given the choice I wouldn’t want to. Why? Because when I look in the mirror now, I see the person I was meant to be. And I really like who I see, because I have fought so hard to become her.

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Thinkstock photo by 4maksym.

Facing The Dakota, a short walk from the corner of 72nd and Central Park West in Manhattan, lies Strawberry Fields. This special section of Central Park is dedicated to the memory of The Dakota’s most beloved former occupant, John Lennon. It also happens to be the first place I ventured to on my first trip to New York City.

Strawberry Fields is a small corner of the massive expanse that is Central Park, but I could tell it is well-loved by New Yorkers and tourists alike. Near the entrance, artists and photographers set up booths to sell their wares, pictures of John Lennon mixed with images of the city that loved him so much. The main attraction in Strawberry Fields is a a circle with the word Imagine at its center, both made with mosaic tile. As I approached the landmark, a former Midwesterner looking for his big break began singing his rendition of “Strawberry Fields.” My mother and I smiled to ourselves at the coincidence. I spent a minute waiting for the crowd of sandals and strollers to clear so I could take a picture. My first picture of New York City, “Imagine” encircled in fresh roses.

As a person with cerebral palsy, I am well-acquainted with pain and fatigue. However, since turning 27, my life had become a cycle of working past the point of exhaustion, using my weekend to give my body recovery time, and waking up on Monday to repeat the cycle. I felt like something was wrong. I didn’t know what needed to be done, but I knew something needed to be done. After searching in vain for a doctor who treated adults with CP in my state, I expanded my search to the entire country. So in early June, I found myself in Manhattan.

While in New York, I received life-changing news, and I saw as many sites as my body would carry me to. I made many memories I shall cherish forever. Not many can say they saw a musical on Broadway and watched it sweep the Tony awards from their hotel room that same night. My mom left the city convinced that I need to marry into an Italian family — Italian food cart and restaurant owners were always giving us extra food. Out of all the memories I left with, what I cherished most was getting to experience what it feels like to be one among the masses, rather than an exception.

Now don’t get me wrong, I learned that the Northern version of “Bless your heart” is “God bless you,” but when compared to my interactions with people I come across at home, these double-edged blessings were few and far between. Awkward staring as I passed people in the street was nearly non-existent. New York is a feast for the eyes, ears, nose, and taste buds. Food carts were on every major corner, people were walking faster than I’d ever seen. Horns blared, subways screeched in and out of stations, riders packed themselves tighter than a can of sardines. I was serenaded with “Ain’t to Proud to Beg” by a trio of men looking for cash on the subway. The first sight I saw at Times Square was a man donning a speedo, sparkles, and a unicorn horn.

Everyone moved with purpose. Given all the distractions and the mood of being on-the-move, people approached to point me in the right direction (I was almost always going the wrong way), rather than to point out I was a different degree of normal. I loved it. I am so used to maintaining the delicate balance of educating others and advocating for myself, it was a relief to not have to launch into an explanation, or bite my tongue. For once, I saw what I felt on the inside reflected to me — normalcy.

I came to New York seeking answers and experiences I’d never forget. I left feeling validated for having questions and blessed to have had as many experiences as I could pack into two weeks. Most importantly, I left knowing I no longer need to imagine a place where I could be myself, swagger and all, without carrying invisible armor. In the immortalized words of John Lennon, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” My trip gave me renewed hope that someday, I will not have to prove my normalcy to others. For this, New York, I love you.

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Photo by contributor.

For many people, Labor Day is a reason to relax and enjoy the long weekend. They don’t have to think about getting up early Monday morning to go to work. Unfortunately as a person with cerebral palsy, I see Labor Day like any other Monday. I am sure there are a lot of individuals like myself who are feeling the same way, or perhaps worse. Here is the reason why.

Back in July 2016, I wrote a story for The Mighty about people with disabilities who struggle with unemployment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (July 20, 2015):

“People who have completed higher levels of education were more likely to be employed than were those with less education. At all levels of education, however, people with a disability were much less likely to work than were people with no disability. For example, 26.1 percent of people with a disability who had completed at least a bachelor’s degree were employed in 2014; among college graduates with no disability, 75.9 percent were employed.” *

When I wrote the story, I was searching for a job, and was very optimistic about finding employment. Now I must admit I am part of those statistics, something I was hoping not to experience. Despite having a Bachelor’s degree, I have been unable to get a job. One of my major dreams was to run my own nonprofit, Rainbow of Talent. I was looking for a job where I could use my skills as a writer and advocate for people with disabilities. That didn’t happen.

Each day it’s becoming harder to support myself. My bills are piling up, and I don’t know what to do. I  submitted my resume to GoodTemp. They help people with disabilities to find jobs. Their response was that my resume wasn’t strong enough.

I searched for work locally and spread the word among contacts. So far I haven’t be able to find any job. It has been hard for me to stay home and become aware of my sad reality, especially after all the struggles I went through to earn a degree. I didn’t want to stay home all day long. That was not what I went to college for. My major goal is to someday be able to say on Labor Day I will be off from work like the rest of the population.

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

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Photo by contributor.

Throughout my life I have kind of felt like I don’t fit in anywhere. When I was small it felt like there was no one like me in this world. I wasn’t quite like all my friends at school because I had mild cerebral palsy and was only in mainstream classes, yet I felt not quite like anyone else I met with a disability, either. As a small child, it was so hard to find acceptance of my CP and to truly understand it is OK to be unlike anyone else. Everyone is different. I truthfully struggled with this for quite some time.

I feel those of us with a disability the world may see as “mild” can struggle extremely hard to find our place in the world. Sometimes it can seem as if you aren’t accepted anywhere. This is where acceptance of yourself is very important. The realization that in all honesty, no one is like anyone else can be a hard one to reach. But in my experience, once you find it you feel as if a weight has been lifted from your shoulders!

To be yourself in a world that doesn’t embrace differences can be difficult. But within yourself, you can find the light to sparkle like a diamond! You are perfect just the way you are — you just need to believe that for yourself. Never be afraid to be yourself, believe in yourself and understand that no matter what the world thinks, within yourself you will find acceptance.

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Photo by contributor.

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