In my junior year, I, like many other stressed-out high schoolers, was freaking out over crafting the perfect Common App essay. It had to be original, poignant, creative, humorous but not flippant, and most importantly, it had to avoid cliches like the plague. As I asked teachers, counselors, and friends for advice, I noticed an interesting trend, summarized in one halting question: “You’re not going to write about the disability, are you?” I should note at this point that “the disability” was often said in a hushed tone, almost as if people were afraid that I would be offended by calling a spade a spade.
I acknowledge that disability can often be a sensitive topic, carrying different meanings for different people. Every person with a disability has a different experience, and I speak only for myself. I have with cerebral palsy (CP), a physical disability which affects my balance and motor control. I can’t stand or walk unassisted, and I have limited control and dexterity in my hands. I was born with CP, and I fully realize that I have a certain advantage, having had nearly 18 years to learn and accept my limitations and strengths.
That’s why it irks me when people whisper about my disability or tell me not to let it “define me” by writing an essay on it. I can understand the perils of letting my disability dictate my every interest, but not writing about it seemed dishonest to me. My disability is an integral part of me. It is not some all-consuming facet of my personality, but it is also not a shameful secret to be ignored or quietly whispered about. I recognize that the chair is probably the very first thing people see when meeting me, and that doesn’t bother me. I don’t see why it should bother others.
Once people realized that I did plan to write my essay on my disability, the tone of the advice shifted. Suddenly it was great that I had the courage to face my disability head on, but I should be unwaveringly positive and tell the story of how I “overcame” CP to succeed in my high school’s gifted program. Except I didn’t really overcome anything to do with my CP itself. I overcame the ignorant and prejudiced attitudes of some faculty and peers. I overcame the social stigma that so often comes with a visible physical disability, and I overcame my fear of speaking up and drawing attention to my needs. I never once transcended the chair or experienced learning without the tightness of my muscles and the ache in my joints. The same brain that sends an electrical message to initiate a full-body spasm at the slightest unexpected noise also holds my great rote memory which has been a lifesaver in history class.
I don’t mean to give the impression that my disability is all positive or all negative. There are certainly days where I’d give anything to cut up my own food or run around with my family, and there are days where I wouldn’t change a thing. I just wish people could see that my disability is a part of me, no better or worse than any other part. It occupies a middle ground devoid of both inspiration and shame, but full of the struggles and celebrations of being a teenager.