“Are you retarded?” The words hung in the air as I paused, consulting my 8-year-old reflection in the mirror of the school bathroom. I exhaled, my adrenaline surging, my hands shaking as I reminded myself that she wasn’t worth it. She wasn’t worth my well-memorized, sensitive speech about cerebral palsy. How even though I stopped breathing at birth and walk and talk differently, I am just like her. I knew that her words were a statement and not a question, so I did what I could to grasp at any shred of self-respect available. I rested my hands on my hips and dished it back out. “Are you?”
When I was a kid, I used to think that being dismissed because of my disability was a temporary challenge that would become easier over time. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve come to find that adults, and ironically those in the disability field, are the most ignorant because they think they know it all. Now that I’ve shed my blonde locks and patient smile, people don’t ask me if I have a disability. They do much worse. They don’t ask.
I have become invisible in a society intent on ignoring people with disabilities, leading me to sometimes question my existence. We live in a culture demanding conformity. It may be surprising, however, for some to learn of the severity of the penalties for those who cannot conform, or choose not to.
As much as I’d like to say I am a rebel, that word better describes my mom. Since the time she kicked a physical therapist out of our home for blaming my late physical development on my mother because she held and loved me too much, to the repeated times of advocating for me throughout the nightmare of my education, she is relentless in her endeavors to enlighten others.
Despite our collective efforts in educating people and taking a stand for equal rights for people with disabilities, the injustices against me endure. I’ve been punished for pursuing an education, developing friendships, having expectations, and deviating from the medical model’s prescriptions for how my life should be. Instead of being encouraged to pursue my dreams like any able-bodied peer would be, I am told that I’ll never [fill in the blank].
My doctors, teachers, caseworkers, and peers — those people who are supposed to support me — shoot down my dreams one at a time. Some even take it upon themselves to ensure that despite my attempts to level the playing field, to gain some degree of status, respect, and credibility, and be taken seriously, I remain subordinated and pitied.
I remember distinctly an example of this discrimination from my senior year of high school. Two staff members clearly expressed their subscription to dominant ideologies about people with disabilities by electing not to make proper arrangements for the administration of my Advanced Placement English exam, even though they reassured me that they had. After one interruption after another throughout the test-taking process, one teacher accidentally deleted an essay I had been toiling over for two hours, forcing my hands to cooperate with me in getting the words that illuminated my mind out onto the computer screen.
After she had deleted it, I’ll never forget what she said to me: What was the point of even taking an AP exam when I wasn’t going anywhere in life, anyway? My test was disqualified because my teachers didn’t care about my future. They didn’t think I would pass the test or ever amount to anything. Only after pursuing legal action was my exam graded. I got a 5 — the highest score possible.
This incident is not an isolated one for people with disabilities. Unfortunately, an epidemic of erroneous stereotypes that portray people with disabilities as burdens, castaways to be dealt with, has led to a system of institutional oppression. Our society has forced people with disabilities to the fringes, deeming them inferior, and therefore setting us up for failure. It is no wonder that we do not have the resources we need to be successful in education, jobs, and relationships when we have been segregated our entire lives. When we reach adulthood and find ourselves without the natural suppors of friends and no hope for the future, the system blames our parents and us.
The truth is that although the medical field often leads families to believe that they have to follow the rules and that having a disability means you automatically surrender your free will and watch your dreams fall by the wayside, it doesn’t have to be that way. Parents and their children need to know that they can choose inclusive education, say no, and trust themselves. You have the right to say yes to doing it your way.
Note: Cerebral Palsy News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disorder. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cerebral Palsy News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cerebral palsy.