I''ll never forget the first time I realized I was thought of as "severely disabled." My mom and I had gone to a vocational rehabilitation office to inquire about getting assistance in purchasing an accessible van.. The counselor had not come in yet. I saw a file on the desk with my name on it. The words "severely disabled " were written on it. I freaked out. I remember saying, "Mom, that's not what I am is it?" "No, that's just something they put down. It doesn't mean anything," my mom said. But I knew it did. It meant that society would always view me as different and make assumptions and judgments about what I'm capable of. It meant that I'd spend my life having to prove myself to others.
I was born with Spastic Cerebral Palsy. I knew that meant that a part of my brain had not properly developed and that my muscles are tight making it difficult for me to move my arms and legs. And, that because I had not attained standing balance as a child, I used a power wheelchair. I knew all the facts, but until that day, in the vocational rehabilitation office,, I never knew I was severely disabled. I remember thinking,"Okay, my limbs don't work properly and I use a wheelchair, but on the inside I am just like everyone else. Why can't people see that?"
Many people with Cerebral Palsy are mentally challenged as well. I'm blessed with a good mind. There have been times when people see me in my wheelchair with my caregiver and speak to my caregiver rather than speaking to me directly. They act like they don't even see me. This happened, most recently, at a hair salon and nail salon. The stylist was doing my hair and telling my caregiver what she was doing to get the style I had requested. More than once I had to ask her to please speak to me directly. Somehow our conversation got around to the children's book I'd written. The stylist looked over at my caregiver and asked, "She writes?" My caregiver nodded and said, "Yes." Things have improved at the nail salon, but when I first visited, the employees looked at me as though I was an alien from another planet. They asked my caregiver how my nails should be done. My caregiver replied, "She can tell you."
It doesn't happen as much anymore but when I was younger, quite often, I wasn't given a menu at restaurants. The assumption being that because I was in a wheelchair I wasn't able to read. This would infuriate me and I would (sometimes very loudly) ask for my own menu.
When I have book readings for my children's book I do a little lesson on disability awareness as well. I tell children that we are all unique and special people. When they see someone who looks a little different because they use a wheelchair, walker or cane, don't point or stare. Go up to them. If you have question, ask. You'll find you are a lot more alike than you are different. And, you just might make a new friend.
Children are much more accepting than adults. Adults have more difficulty accepting someone who is different. I'm asking anyone who reads this post to remember this. The next time you meet someone with a disability don't make judgements or assumptions based on outward appearances. Look past what's on the outside and try to see them for the person they are inside. Who knows, you just might make a new friend.