How Having Cerebral Palsy Has Shaped Me as an Activist
Growing up, I was never encouraged to resent myself for my differences. Questions about my disability were always answered by my parents in ways that made me feel like my shortcomings made me powerful and special. The tasks that I couldn’t manage paled in comparison to the things that I could and would learn to do as an adult. Through my parents, I learned that I should always try my hardest, but also that my best was good enough, regardless of whether or not I had achieved what I had set out to do. My upbringing led me to believe I had a place in this world, and a big role to play one day.
It wasn’t until I started to engage more with the world outside of my family bubble that I felt the sting of exclusion for the first time. Although I was a resilient child in a lot of ways, my sensitivity had gotten the best of me by the time I started high school, and that’s when I was singled out.
There is no specific experience that I lived through from age 11 onwards that made me feel marginalized. Rather, it was a collection of incidents, strange looks and intrusive questions that culminated in my isolation from the rest of the “flock.” As an angsty pre-teen, I thought of this as a devastating sign of my social inadequacy — an indication that I was “too different.” Later, I started to consider my view from the sidelines as an advantage. That shift in mentality made me a much kinder person. It instilled in me an almost instinctual sense to care about the inclusion of others, and led me on a path towards activism and advocacy.
Though I have several overlapping identities that could, in themselves, be considered as marginal and vulnerable to prejudice, I’m not a part of every struggle. I don’t have an intimate perspective of the trans experience, for example. But I know the isolation that ensues after time spent around ignorance. I know the difference between a person who is whispered about, and a person who is acknowledged and understood; I understand what it takes for someone to appreciate their own power. Having a desire for the disability community to be heard, accommodated for and treated with equal respect informs my drive to seek the same for other communities, and leads me to search for ways I could best be of service to them.
I have found that the biggest barrier between those in marginalized groups and those outside of them is a lack of education. Being within the communities I am a part of has given me firsthand experience of living as one of a minority. I have been educated “on-the-job” as a disabled person and, as such, I have more knowledge on disability-related issues than someone without my lived experience. Building a bridge between abled and disabled people through education enables those without disabilities to empathize with us; it encourages people to appreciate the support we need in order to live our fullest lives, and hopefully to fight against the injustices we face.
I know I am less educated on issues concerning communities I am not a part of than someone who has that lived experience. As such, I seek education from people who have lived within the fight, who are given little choice other than to defend themselves against discrimination. I aim to turn my sympathy for the injustice those people have faced into action, as informed by what they need from me in their journey towards change.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It is my deepest conviction that, if I am to truly believe in an equal, equitable society, I must use my power for the betterment of all who have felt that same sting I did as a teenager. My disability gives me both the ability to recognize the need for balance amongst all people, and the passion and rigor to fight for it.
Getty image by Viktoriia Miroshnikova.