I have a disability. There, I said it. I have a disability. I’ve spent the entirety of my 26 years on earth living with almost invisible cerebral palsy, and today’s the first day I can confidently say that I have a disability.
Did my condition change or get worse? No. My cerebral palsy has always been incredibly mild, so much so that my whole life even I would question the validity of whether or not I have a disability.
It seems like parenting children with disabilities is all about not limiting them, not labeling them, and I think that works well for some kids. For me, it didn’t, and I don’t think there’s a way to tell what works when a kid is still so small. Since I’m so able-bodied with my abilities and only struggle with certain things, I felt that when I did struggle, it was all my fault. I needed someone to be realistic with me and tell me as a kid that not only would I struggle, but also that there was valid cause for my struggle.
I am not by any means upset or disappointed with how my parents raised me. They did what they knew. They did everything the doctors told them they should do, and that’s OK. For that, I’m more than grateful because they have shown me over and over that they love me and that they care. All they want is what’s best for me.
I still have a hard time considering my mild cerebral palsy a disability, but I think that’s partly because it’s all I’ve ever known. This is my normal. Disability is my normal.
Disability has been the subject of many recent sessions with my therapist. Session after session, I would ask him if he thought I had a disability and session after session, he refused to tell me. My therapist wanted me to form my own opinion, but in that moment, I still blamed all my faults and struggles on myself. I still told myself the reason I struggled was because I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t trying hard enough.
Eventually, after explaining to my therapist that him being so ambiguous was just about as invalidating as my parents about my struggles growing up, when they pointed out everything I could do, my therapist finally gave me an answer. Instead of people telling me everything I could do, I needed people to show me that yes, I struggle and the reasons I struggle are real, tangible and valid. I needed people to show me that my struggle is not my fault.
Being allowed to call my mild cerebral palsy a disability changes all sorts of things. It means that struggling to keep up with others or not being able to push myself as hard as others isn’t a character flaw. It’s not just me not trying hard enough. Disability isn’t an excuse, it’s an explanation.
Disability explains why my childhood was filled with so many shots and casts and surgeries and physical therapy. I wasn’t being “punished” or a “bad” kid to merit these treatments. I have a disability.
Disability explains why I struggled so much physically when I was in grad school for physical therapy. I wasn’t a bad student for skipping class to rest or for not staying up at all hours studying. My body wouldn’t allow me to stay up and study like so many of my peers. I have a disability.
Disability explains why, when I do work out, I am not able to perform at such a high level as my peers. Although I often forget (or refuse to acknowledge), my body cannot perform at such levels. I have a disability.
Disability explains why I struggle so much with my mental health. I know my cerebral palsy contributes to my mental health challenges. I am not a “terrible human being” or “weak” for not being able to cope with my situation. I have a disability. (Also, no one with mental health struggles is a “terrible human being” or “weak” — that’s just how I judged myself.)
Disability doesn’t mean I get rid of all expectations for myself. Instead, it gives me permission (with help and guidance from others) to set my own, more reasonable expectations. This way, although my new expectations may be beneath what others have set for me, I’ll know I’m doing my best, and that’s good enough for me.
It’s time I start owning my truth and recognize what is real. Holding myself to this expectation that “I can do anything” will only make me miserable. Disability gives me the freedom to ditch perfectionism. Let’s be realistic, everyone can’t do everything.
I don’t mean this to say we need to set limitations on the capabilities of people with disabilities because, like people without disabilities, everyone and every disability is different. I mean that it’s time to start to have conversations that allow people to use the label (yes, label) “disability” as a strength. Being able to identify as someone with a disability gives me community. It allows me to feel a bond with everyone out there whose bodies and/or minds are a bit different. It makes me feel like I belong and I am not invisible.
Disability isn’t black or white like my kid brain thought; instead, it’s a million shades of grey.