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Emerging From the Shadows of Concealing My Disability

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I have spent much of my life in the shadows, harboring a secret.  A secret that twists through my mind and grips my heart, wrestling away any desire to reveal it. I have mild, barely-perceptible cerebral palsy.

I stand in a penumbra — the gray, blurred fringe of a shadow — on the cusp of light and darkness, black and white.  I teeter on the brink of able-bodied, rendering me virtually invisible — both to the disability community and to the predominantly able-bodied world in which I live. I feel a sense of safety in the shadows and a sense of privilege in “passing” as able-bodied, but the challenges I face in feigning physical ability — though largely invisible — are undeniable.

I traverse the streets of my former college town in heels — seemingly a hallmark of able-bodied womanhood — willing my body to obey my brain. I simultaneously scan the
pavement for cracks and ruptures and attempt to maintain conversation with a friend. My attention is divided between speaking and avoiding a fall onto the concrete.  I gaze up at the passers-by on occasion, wondering if anyone can see my slightly lilting gait. No one appears to notice.

I wearily trudge into a vintage clothing boutique. My leg is stiff, trembling in the wake of exhaustion. I feel as though I will collapse, but I continue to smile.

I ache to disclose my physical challenges, but I refrain.  I want the day to remain cheerful and lighthearted, and I do not want my friend to worry about my medical condition — an intrinsic facet of my life. For a fleeting instant, I appear to step outside of the shadows, but I remain in the penumbra.

I am lying in bed, a book spread open in front of me. I have a mile-long list of tasks to complete, and I intend to finish them all today, but I am distracted. A dull pain has begun to envelop my leg — the hollow ache of the winter months coursing through my muscles. Within a few minutes — seemingly out of the blue — the nature of the pain shifts.  It is sharp and penetrating, coursing relentlessly down the length of my leg. Above all else, though, I need to study. I glance down at my leg. I briefly stretch. I return to studying for the LSAT.  I do not speak of the pain. No one suspects anything is amiss.

I remain unseen by choice — by omission. As a woman with a disability living in a predominantly able-bodied world, I am reluctant to open up about the pain wracking my body because I fear being treated as perpetually fragile. Consequently, I strive to present myself as intelligent, driven and capable rather than highlighting my physical challenges, but in doing so, I step further into the gray haze of the penumbra.

I constantly find myself supplying proof. Proof of my physical ability. Proof of my disability. To many — including those who have disabilities — I do not appear to be disabled, as evidenced by the surprise written on the faces of others on the rare occasion I choose to disclose my cerebral palsy. When I find myself surrounded by my able-bodied peers, however, I wonder if I am able-bodied enough to conceal myself among them. I know I am privileged to be able to choose to conceal or reveal my medical condition — many people with physical disabilities do not have this option — but the constant need to prove I am both disabled and physically able contributes to the anxiety I feel and the perfectionistic tendencies I exhibit.

I dance along the blurred lines of the penumbra. I can nearly touch the light at the edge of the shadows — the sheer radiance of understanding how I fit into a society that constantly expects me to both prove my identity as a woman with a disability and conceal my cerebral palsy so I can fit the mold of an able-bodied woman. The warmth from the light is palpable, tingling against my skin. Light grazes my slender silhouette, but I am still living my life in shadow — in hiding.

I take a deep breath. My mind is racing. I wonder if disclosing my disability will fundamentally alter the dynamics of my friendships. I am terrified of change, wishing that in a few moments, I will continue to feel the same ease around my friend that I have felt for years. I allow myself to exhale as I look into my friend’s eyes. “I have cerebral palsy,” I say gingerly.

In that moment, we speak as freely and openly about disability as we do about any other topic. Disability is no longer taboo, no longer something to fear, but rather, an identity to embrace. Our conversation shifts. We spend the next hour talking about anything and everything, and I know nothing has changed between us.  However, I know I will be changed forever.

At long last, I step out of the shadows. I am doused in light, bathing in warmth — the blurry penumbra I once inhabited merely a memory from a former life. I feel free of the heavy weight that has gripped my heart for years — free to be fearlessly, unapologetically myself.  I feel wholeheartedly accepted and loved. I no longer feel that I have to conform to society’s narrow conceptualizations of what it means to appear “able-bodied” or “disabled.” Most importantly, I feel proud of my identity as a woman with a disability. By disclosing my medical condition, I have finally found the courage to embrace myself.

I have cerebral palsy, and I refuse to live my life in the shadows.

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Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: January 18, 2017
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