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When I Realized I Don't Have to Be a Hero as a Person With a Disability

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I have been meaning to set up a blog since I visited America, but never thought I’d have the linguistic creativity to manifest my thoughts onto paper, especially as I don’t read. As those six months slowly start to dissipate from memory, I know it needs to be written and recorded – for my own therapeutic sake. A lot has happened since then; American road trip, volunteering, reconnecting with a lost friend from the orphanage, Rio, starting university, discovering wheelchair skiing, leaving wheelchair basketball, leaving university… and now here I am: about to pack for an upcoming ski trip in late January, and reunite with a friend from China in late February.

I remember the jittery angst I felt days before university. It didn’t really hit me until I was waiting for our return flight at the Rio de Janeiro airport. My summer has come to an end, and although I knew I’d be a changed person, I couldn’t even begin to fathom how much it has replenished my mind, body and soul.

Prior to the trip I received a joint Children of Courage award with my sister, won gold with Great Britain in Germany and secured a place at my first choice university. Despite the external success, I felt mentally ill-equipped. The fight within me that was once praised was gone. It was an insidious, mind-numbing, hopeless odyssey that has unraveled itself since college. My creativity suffered and it caused a domino effect across all aspects of my life.

America has provided moments of solitude and clarity, which was what I needed to recover. We camped in the beating heat between San Francisco and New York, within the course of 23 days across national parks, campsites and deserts. The heat forced me to dispose of the baggy T-shirts and leggings I brought with me. In the same way I stripped down my clothing, I stripped down my insecurities. Being in a wheelchair, people usually underestimate me until proven otherwise, which is an inevitable curse for those with incredibly low self-esteem. I was surrounded by people I didn’t know, and with a company that never took a wheelchair user before. But as days turned into weeks I grew more in confidence, within myself and about my chair. I realized that I have been vicariously living on empty pursuit, and in blissful ignorance of my true self – but that is for another day.

It became apparent throughout summer that to be successful with a disability meant to succeed in one obvious pursuit: the Paralympics. I had to be extraordinary to be ordinary, as being ordinary meant I was underachieving. I was living the most normal life for an 18-year-old, yet I was constantly reminded that I looked good for a disabled girl, or praised for pushing up a hill or being out in clubs. Entering the dating scene was interesting, but I was lucky that my first date was charming – despite spilling my drink and getting tipsy because I was so nervous, and drunkenly saving someone’s number as “white boy on legs” in a club. But again, that is another story.

It felt like I was living in an in-between world: not part of the able-bodied or the disabled, where everyone is lumped together as inspiration porn. The more I embraced my passion for sports and adventure, the more I was hailed as extraordinary. The more of a party animal I became at university, the more respect I gained. The more active I was with my legs and out of my chair, the harder it was for people to understand the disability spectrum.  It reflected a perception that myself and other wheelchair users are imprisoned in undesirable, disease-ridden bodies and crippled for a lifetime of doom and gloom… and anyone who slightly challenges that one-dimensional delusion of disability was considered a hero.

Sitting at the departure lounge at the Rio de Janeiero airport, I wondered if my newfound fulfillment would carry me through university. It has taken an extended period of self examination and contemplation to realize that nothing was a quick fix. I don’t know my path or where it’ll lead me, but I have a better idea of who I am and where I want to go. It’s going to be beautifully unpredictable, but the odyssey is mine. That is empowering.

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Originally published: January 18, 2017
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