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Turning Adversity Into Opportunity With Cerebral Palsy

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I lay in bed, unable to walk, gazing wearily at the sterile, whitewashed walls of the hospital room.  My eyes fell on a balloon tied to one of the hospital’s chairs — a royal blue Mylar balloon with a smattering of sunflowers.  “Get well soon,” it proclaimed, in bold, cursive lettering.

Get well soon.

But my disability is forever, I thought.  I’ll recover, and in a few weeks, I’ll be allowed to walk again.  But how many more times will I have to do this?  How many more surgeries, how many more hours of physical therapy, how many more leg braces…

In that moment, as a 10-year-old girl lying in a hospital bed, struggling to cope with a lifelong medical condition, all I saw was adversity — a series of obstacles to surpass, a long road ahead.

Little did I know that just over a decade later, I would turn my adversity into opportunity — an opportunity to not only empower myself, but also to help empower others.

I was born 22 years ago with cerebral palsy — a neurological disorder affecting movement, balance, and posture.  Although my disability has long affected me very mildly, I internalized the ableist misconception that disability is “wrong.” Consequently, I became fixated on therapies, surgeries, and the other perceived inconveniences inherent in my life with cerebral palsy, rather than on the opportunities my CP could afford me. Due to my flawed conceptualization of disability, my self-esteem dwindled, preventing me from discovering the world of possibilities concealed within my circumstances.

But beneath layers upon layers of internalized ableism, gifts bloomed out of my challenges. I was hard-working. I was determined. I was resilient. I had a compelling story to share, one that could empower others.

It took me over 21 years to fully embrace the gifts my cerebral palsy has provided me, particularly the impact my story could have on others with disabilities. I felt a responsibility to the disability community to share my story — to help others feel less alone — but I wavered. I spent years terrified of the potential repercussions of deciding to open up about my medical condition. I worried I would be treated with pity or derision. So I stayed quiet.

Then, one day, something inside me snapped. I wanted to share. I wanted to be free. I wanted to free others. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to turn adversity into opportunity.

I have spent the past several months sharing my experiences with cerebral palsy with the world. Using my life story to advocate and educate has not only allowed me to empower myself and embrace my disability identity, but it has also helped others do the same. Since I began sharing my story, I have received countless messages of support and encouragement from family, friends, and strangers. I have embraced the disability community and all it has to offer. Most importantly, I have shown others with disabilities that they are never as alone as they feel, helping them find solace, pride and beauty in living with a disability identity.

I have turned adversity into opportunity.

Some days, in my memory, I am transported back to the bland, whitewashed hospital room. Back to the 10-year-old girl recovering from surgery, struggling with internalized ableism, fighting to accept the permanence of her disability, unaware of the opportunities that lie ahead. I sit at the edge of the uncomfortable hospital bed and turn towards my younger self. We embrace each other, face-to-face, heart-to-heart, as I tell her everything I know now — everything I wish I had understood about my life, my future and my impact on the world.

“I know cerebral palsy is forever, but it is the reason you will live out your dream of helping others,” I whisper, as a small, hopeful smile spreads across her face. “Your struggles today will become your opportunities tomorrow.” As I leave the room, I notice a twinkle in her eye, and I know, without a doubt, that she believes in her ability to turn adversity into opportunity.

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Thinkstock photo by M Gucci.

Originally published: August 21, 2017
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