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How Speaking on a Panel With Zach Anner Helped Me Embrace My Disability

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On March 25, 2021, I spoke on The Mighty’s Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day panel with comedian Zach Anner and Mighty editor Karin Willison. The prospect of speaking so publicly about topics I’ve only felt brave enough to discuss for a few years felt daunting, especially considering the caliber of my fellow panelists’ disability advocacy.

I felt so much more than just nervous jitters on the day of the panel, though. Speaking about cerebral palsy publicly is a milestone, but speaking alongside Zach Anner felt like the most beautiful “full circle” moment.

When I was 17 years old and full of shame about living with cerebral palsy, I stumbled upon a blogger’s article about Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day. Her writing was compelling, so I read more of her blogs, and eventually, I came across an interview she had conducted with Zach Anner.

Back then, I didn’t know of any of the “rising stars” in the cerebral palsy community, so I was completely unfamiliar with Zach.  At the time of the interview, he had recently won an accessible travel show, Rollin’ With Zach, as part of a competition on the OWN Network.  His audition video was linked in the blog post, and as I watched, I immediately was in awe of his natural candor about his cerebral palsy.  As he joked about life with “the sexiest of the palsies,” I was keenly aware that I couldn’t even say the words “cerebral palsy” without spiraling into tremendous anxiety, let alone joke about my experiences.  But deep down, a small part of me wanted to make peace with my disability identity so that I too could make light of my struggles.

4 years after my introduction to Zach Anner, I’d watched his viral videos and had fallen in love with the disability sitcom “Speechless,” on which he was a writer.  By that time, I’d seen significantly more disability representation in the media than ever before, which helped me feel safer about opening up about my own experiences with cerebral palsy.  At 21, after months of internal deliberation, I decided to open up about my “secret” life with cerebral palsy, which ultimately thrust me deep into the disability community.

Finally, I was able to connect with the writers and cerebral palsy advocates whom I’d long admired.  With their support and the support of my closest friends, I gradually felt more comfortable disclosing my disability.  I adopted a sense of humor about the challenges I faced in my life with cerebral palsy, and while my loved ones were initially shocked that I was so brash, they came to embrace the unorthodox way in which I shared my experiences.

My decision to advocate on behalf of the cerebral palsy community led me to lend my voice to a variety of websites and once even speak on the radio about my experiences with cerebral palsy.  As someone who “passed” as able-bodied for nearly a decade before opening up about the reality of my experiences, I had an unusual, intriguing story that seemed to draw people in.  Still, I never could have dreamt that I would eventually speak alongside Zach Anner — one of the first people whose attitude towards cerebral palsy I longed to possess.

So when I received the news that I had the opportunity to speak on The Mighty’s cerebral palsy panel with Zach Anner, I jumped at the chance.  In the days leading up to the panel, I was anxious that I wouldn’t be able to speak on such vulnerable topics, especially alongside people who had far more cerebral palsy advocacy experience.  Thankfully, I calmed some of my nerves by eating copious amounts of ice cream and re-reading Zach’s book, “If At Birth You Don’t Succeed.” I figured that if anything went wrong while I was on the panel, I’d at least have a funny story to tell later.

The moment I went live on The Mighty, though, all of my anxiety immediately dissipated.  Just a few minutes in, as I explained the myriad of ways in which cerebral palsy affects me, I ad-libbed, “My fine motor skills are not-so-fine, and my gross motor skills are pretty gross!”

In that moment, I fully realized just how far I’d come.  The girl who could barely choke out the words “cerebral palsy” several years ago had blossomed into a woman speaking about disability on an advocacy panel.  And the young adult who was afraid to use humor to confront her struggles with cerebral palsy had transformed into someone who spontaneously joked about her symptoms — completely unfazed by the fact that she was on a panel with a professional comedian with the same condition.

To my surprise, our live audience completely embraced everything I said, supporting me in a way I once feared no one ever would.  A few people even quoted me in the comments, and I was so relieved that my lighthearted approach to discussing cerebral palsy sat well with them.  I was in awe that I had just confronted a longtime fear alongside someone I’d spent eight years looking up to.

Speaking on The Mighty’s Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day panel with Zach Anner helped me realize that I’ve undergone a metamorphosis, gradually transforming into the advocate I’ve long strived to become. Eight years ago, I never thought I’d feel so connected to the cerebral palsy community and so willing to embrace my struggles with humor.  But after years of emotional work and vulnerability and an hour on an advocacy panel with one of my role models, I know that with a little faith in myself and a whole lot of spontaneous jokes, I’m finally ready to fly.

Originally published: March 26, 2021
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