Jen Starzec

@jen-starzec | contributor
Jen Starzec is 21 years old and is from Illinois. When she was 13, she was paralyzed by a rare neuroimmunological disorder called Transverse Myelitis, which damaged her spinal cord. So far, Jen has written three books with Sarah Todd Hammer, entitled “5k, Ballet, and a Spinal Cord Injury," “Determination,” and "Up and Down," which are about their journeys with TM and AFM (www.5kballet.com). Jen currently attends the University of Wisconsin - Whitewater, where she is studying Communication Sciences and Disorders with the goal of becoming a Speech-Language Pathologist. You can check out more of Jen’s writing on her blog: www.jensjournals.com
Jen Starzec

Responding to Invasive Questions About Disability

My friend and I are just browsing the bakery section of the grocery store one day — as people tend to do when they are searching for dinner items but get distracted by their sweet-teeth — when we hear someone approach us from behind. We turn around to see a lady, one who works at the bakery, staring at me and smiling. When I give her a confused smile back, she opens her mouth to say something, and I brace myself for the inevitable. “What’d you do to your leg?” she questions, pointing to the purple AFO on my left foot. I shift in my seat awkwardly, not particularly interested in explaining the story behind my disability to this stranger at the present moment. Right now, all I want to do is continue shopping, like everyone else in this grocery store. “It’s a long story,” I politely tell her, already turning to leave the area. Maybe we can head to the candy aisle instead… “Is it a funny story?” I turn right back around and stare at the lady, blind-sided by this follow-up question. Her cheery expression seems to falter for a millisecond, as if she’s rethinking the words that just came out of her mouth. But still, she looks at me expectantly, waiting for my response. Not unless you happen to find transverse myelitis funny. Though, we all have different senses of humor, I suppose… “Um… N-no, not really…” I finally stutter. Somehow, this still doesn’t satisfy her curiosity. “Well then, what happened?” I want to tell the lady that it’s none of her business. I want to ask her why she feels so entitled to know my full story — a story which is very personal, an experience that was emotionally traumatic and life-altering — when she likely won’t ever see me again. I want to ask her extensive questions about her medical history as well, to show her how invasive it feels. But I don’t. I don’t do any of that. I just briefly explain transverse myelitis, that it damaged my spinal cord. I tell her the AFO’s purpose is to correct my foot drop. Luckily, this answer finally seems to satisfy her, and at that, my friend and I promptly leave the bakery section of the store. But, as we’re walking / rolling away, my friend turns to me and, not quieting her voice in the slightest, exclaims, “That was absolutely none of her business. I can’t believe how rude she was being.” I smile at that. Seeing as she has transverse myelitis and is disabled as well, I know she gets it. On the bright side, at least I have friends who are also able to recognize the ignorance of too many able-bodied people. And also, she’s so, so right. It wasn’t any of the lady’s business, and I had every right to tell her off. I shouldn’t have to bypass my own comfort to appease a complete stranger. But this is a problem disabled people face daily. We are asked invasive questions every time we go out, while most people probably wouldn’t even begin to consider asking able-bodied strangers things like that, or even approaching them in the first place. Don’t get me wrong — I love raising awareness for my disorder, and any of my friends could tell you  I’m pretty open about those things. I actually encourage friends, family members, classmates, people I’m getting to know, etc. to ask questions about my disability and chronic illnesses. I want them to understand, and I’d prefer that new friends just ask rather than let it be the “elephant in the room” for too long, because that just gets awkward for everyone involved. However, there is a time and place for those conversations. When we’re already talking to each other, getting to know each other in the appropriate setting? Sure, that’s a great time to bring it up, and I don’t mind at all if you do so. But when I’m just minding my own business, trying to shop like everyone else in the store or waiting for my drink like everyone else in line at Starbucks… In those cases, it is, quite frankly, absolutely none of your business. What is it about the sight of a wheelchair or crutches or leg braces or hand splints that makes it suddenly OK to approach a random stranger and pry into their personal life? Say you’re at the beach and notice as you pass by a random girl that she has a scar near her abdomen. Would you go up to her and ask if it came from an appendectomy? Chances are, probably not. If you got to know her, you might find out about the scar’s origin eventually, but it’d be rude to go up to her as a stranger and ask like that. So why is it any different when it comes to us? Follow this journey on Jen’s Journals. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Thinkstock photo by Ksuklein.

Jen Starzec

Rolling Past Insecurities as a Power Wheelchair User

Before I got my current wheelchair, I had to rely on other people to push me around, since my arm weakness made it very difficult to push a manual chair on my own. So, naturally, I was very excited to get a power wheelchair, because I knew how much comfort and independence it’d give me. When I first sat in it and drove it around a bit, it immediately felt like my chair, which was an amazing feeling. But that excitement, that pride in my fancy mobility aid eventually faded, and when I got to college, it actually began to disgust me. I felt self-conscious and embarrassed every time I journeyed from my dorm to class or every time I moved with food on my lap in the dining hall, especially if I was alone (which was most of the time). You’d think that the stares, ignorant comments and condescending smiles would become less bothersome as time went on, but for me it was the opposite. After a while, those things became so infuriating and really, really got to me. At some point, I couldn’t stand it; the able-bodied college students surrounding me made me feel like such an outcast. I felt more “different” than ever before in my life, and that made me feel so incredibly insecure about my disability. I quickly became obsessed with “really” walking again (not just the short distances I can already do), and I was frustrated when those attempts failed. I thought I needed to walk “normally,” because it felt like that chair was suffocating me more and more every second I spent sitting in it. But look at these pictures. I took these pictures with one of my best friends, Sarah Todd, who’s like a little sister to me and also happens to have my same condition: transverse myelitis. These pictures were captured during a photo-shoot in the city, and though I initially wanted for my chair to be absent from every picture, I’m glad that that didn’t end up being the case, because… Looking at these pictures, I don’t see a piece of junk I’m chained to or a burden that doesn’t like to fit in people’s cars and draws the attention of every passerby. No, it’s utilized in a nice way. It’s part of the pictures, a part that actually made them better and even more adorable than I could ever have imagined. Walking is overrated. Yes, people stare and are generally super annoying and ignorant. Yes, my chair can be horribly inconvenient at times. But it’s a part of me. Though I’d love to recover more, I now realize that walking (…and running…) isn’t the end-all-be-all. So thank you, ST, for suggesting these amazing, adorable poses. And thank you to our photographer for not being scared to make sure we utilized that chair. Thank you for incorporating it as a fun, important prop that belongs in the picture, rather than an obstacle to be ignored and avoided. I needed that reminder. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Photo by Danielle in Chicago for Flytographer.

Jen Starzec

Pursuing College and Career as a Disabled Young Adult

Everyone who meets me likely suspects that I have a disability, unless they think I use an extremely expensive custom wheelchair for fun. That plus my chronic illnesses have impacted my life a lot. Some of that impact has been positive. I mean, I’ve befriended a lot of awesome, fellow disabled and/or chronically ill people whom I’d hate to have to live without. And I suppose there’s the whole “I’ve learned to appreciate things” thing, and many of my current hobbies may not be in my life without it, etc. But that’s not quite what this post is about. It’s hard to deny that my GPA and AP exam scores could’ve been much higher without transverse myelitis, and I could’ve participated in so many more extracurriculars. Where would I be in my running career if I were still able-bodied? Plus I’ve dropped more classes than I care to admit during the last five years because between hospitalizations and long flares causing me to miss weeks of school at a time, it can be incredibly difficult to keep up sometimes. I’ve tried my best and so far, for the most part, I haven’t been unsuccessful. But it hasn’t been easy, and I feel like I’ve barely done anything other than school; after sophomore year, my only extracurricular was choir, and I never got a job in high school. I rarely even hung out with friends during the week, because I needed a two-hour nap after school every day in order to have just barely enough energy for homework. Meanwhile, so many people are able to do it all and, as a result, I feel so inadequate. I feel like they’ve surpassed me in every way because, for everything I accomplish, my [incredibly smart, gorgeous, and driven] friends have achieved that plus 10 other amazing things. And that was just high school. If my freshman year of college taught me anything, it’s that life just keeps getting more and more difficult as time goes on which is, admittedly, the exact opposite of what I hoped for. I’m still only 19, so I know that I can’t speak for all stages of life, but I can express my experiences and thoughts and fears. See, right now, I’ve been thinking, and I realized just how scared I am for the future. There are many reasons for this — some most human beings can relate to — but at this moment, the most prominent is my fear that I won’t ever get a good job. I just so desperately want to be a Physician Assistant but realistically, will I be able to achieve that goal? Or will all of that schooling (assuming I make it, which will be a battle in and of itself) be for nothing? You might think that this is an irrational fear, especially if you know me well and therefore actually see me as an intelligent, “normal” human being. But as dramatic as I can be sometimes, I know this fear is valid, and I’m not the only disabled person who worries about it. I’m afraid employers will take one look at the wheelchair (and/or crutches) and sucky hands and decide I’m not competent. And it’s true that, technically, I probably can’t bring as much physically to the position as my able-bodied counterparts. But I’m smart, and I’m determined, and I am able to adapt. Just ask my mom — at 13 years old, newly paralyzed, with no hand function, no right arm function, and very, very little left arm function, I was stubbornly determined to learn how to feed myself. In eighth grade, I shakily scribbled most of my own notes with my weak, non-dominant hand, refusing to rely on the assigned note-taker next to me. At 15, sick of relying on other people, I figured out a way to tie regular shoelaces by myself. I’m not saying I’m super amazing or anything; I’m just saying I know how to adapt and I know what I’m capable of. I’m not in any way worried that I’ll be physically unable to be a PA… I’m just afraid other people will think so, because they don’t know me at all. Instead, all they’ll see are my physical limitations (which are getting worse and worse), and I’m afraid my able-bodied competitor will be chosen over me every time, despite the fact that it’s technically illegal to discriminate in that way. And even if I manage to get a job… Well, the fears don’t stop there. I’m receiving a near-failing grade in one of my classes this past semester because I missed the last three weeks of school due to being hospitalized, and my professor just didn’t think I could finish such a large amount of missed work over the summer. This is sucky, but overall not that big a deal. However, what if next time, instead of a low-level course that I technically don’t need for my degree and can easily retake, it’s a job? What if I’m eventually fired because of things I can’t control, because I’m “sick” more than most people? I can try my best to not require hospitalization and work through days when my pain and fatigue flare so much that I can barely lift my head off the pillow, but I already tried that this year and you can see how well that worked out for me. When it comes to my abilities, I usually don’t say I “can’t” do things (besides, like, run. Or jump. Or do a chin-up) because I hate feeling weak and especially hate when people pity me. But these fears are becoming increasingly real as I get older — especially as my body fails me more and more — and I hate that I have to be afraid that other people’s ableism could potentially inhibit me from following my dreams. I wish more people saw me for who I am. I don’t see myself as particularly “strong” or “inspirational.” I mean, I am disabled. I am chronically ill. I definitely won’t deny that, as those things are a huge part of me. But I’m also just a 19-year-old girl who loves singing, writing, and swimming. I am a college student who is fascinated by the human body and modern medicine. I am a daughter and sister who loves and values her family more than anything else in the world. I am sensitive, empathetic, “too” kind, creative, hard-working, stubborn, independent, determined. Yes, my disability is a part of me, but it isn’t the only part of me. I just hope that the people I meet — employers, bosses, colleagues, society — will eventually realize this, because I’m just so, so sick of fighting against a world that’s not built for me. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here .