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To My Younger Self, the Freshman With Cerebral Palsy

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I’m writing as a reminder that despite everything, you are perfectly ordinary. You are a delightfully unremarkable student. Please don’t let anybody tell you differently.

I say this not in the name of comedic irony, but because it’s the highest compliment I can think to pay on this, the eve of your graduation with a First Class Honors Bachelor of Arts.

Growing up with a disability, it was second nature for strangers to proclaim your special bravery or inspirational status, no matter how much you wished otherwise. Whatever you do, don’t let the expectations of others stop you from being honest with yourself.

It’s OK to feel scared and overwhelmed. Breakdowns in the library are an inevitable rite of passage. You are entitled to complain, to be tired, and to doubt yourself just like any other first year. You do not owe the world a façade. You do owe it to yourself to do your best. Go to lectures and to the library. Ask for help in understanding what is going on. Fight to get your reading materials in an accessible format, hand in that assignment on time and take nonsense from nobody.

I know that right now you are incredibly homesick in a way that most of your classmates will fail to understand. You long for a place that is totally equipped for your needs, filled with people who will go to the ends of the earth for you, without a thought for endless health and safety regulations or financial incentives. I know it’s tough, but you will rise to the challenge as you have done so many times before.

You don’t recall the day you were diagnosed with cerebral palsy, but you have asked about it often enough. At 2 years old, the neurologist told your parents what he thought they already knew. It wasn’t so much that they were explicitly told you would amount to nothing. Not at all. Rather, statistics and medical jargon filled the room that was already so crammed with uncertainty there could be little room for hope.

If strangers in the street were surprised you completed mainstream school, it’s nothing compared to the reaction you’ll get upon declaring you are now studying English Literature and Philosophy full-time at a prestigious university two hours away. Their eyebrows shoot up in shock, they stammer to cover up their mistake in assuming you were going to twiddle your thumbs at home indefinitely. For the most part they mean no offense. You’ll learn to laugh it off, engaging in some worthwhile, impromptu intellectual discussions along the way.

I know you are grappling with impostor syndrome. Over time that fraudulent feeling will fade. You were accepted to higher education on your own merit, which will keep you at the top of your class. There will come a day down the line when you no longer feel that at any moment you might be tapped on the shoulder and asked to leave because there was a mistake and they do not really allow people like you in places like this.

There will always be those who consider you the recipient of some special treatment, when in fact that the reasonable accommodations that are already so much a part of your university experience will fail to level the playing field entirely. You are set apart not by disability, but by virtue of your dedication. Nothing less than 110 percent effort will yield the same results as your peers, but that’s life. It will all be worth it in the end.

You are never comfortable sitting back on your laurels with a label. When friends and family spoke of college, it seemed the kind of place where you could find your tribe and discover your passion. That must be true, because the ugly duckling has certainly found her fellow swans. The only trouble is, everybody sees you gliding along the surface of the lake and pays no heed to the non-stop paddling that goes into keeping up appearances.

Be proud of yourself every step of the way. Only you will truly realize the extent of your efforts in each class, each module, each semester. It will all become less surreal when you consider not your grades, but the blood, sweat and tears that went into earning them.

As you will learn, there is great freedom in forfeiting your unique identity for academic purposes. It is a great relief to be marked fairly, seen as just another student number on an anonymous assignment, just another sheaf of pages in a stream of endless essays for an external examiner.

In three years’ time you will sit in a hall with hundreds of students to receive that coveted certificate.  In belonging, you will be just another face in the crowd and that in itself is worth celebrating.

Getty image by James Woodson.

Originally published: October 29, 2018
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