Five years ago, I lost the ability to walk across my small high school, then across a hall and finally across a room. My legs would give out on me, or I would pass out. There was no accident, no large precursor; it was sudden, and it left no clues.
When it started, it came and went. Some weeks I would feel back to “normal” (whatever that means) and sometimes I would be out of school for weeks at a time. My senior year of high school, I missed nearly every other day.
Since the beginning, I’ve visited a couple of dozen doctors, from Austin, Texas to Cleveland, Ohio. These doctors span from neurologists to cardiologists to rheumatologists to endocrinologists and more. I’ve had hundreds of blood panels, imaging and physical tests performed. So far, I do not have an answer for my array of physical issues.
Two years ago, at the recommendation of a professor, I realized the best option for me to be able to complete my degree and otherwise live my life would be to purchase my first wheelchair. This decision was utterly intimidating and difficult to wrap my head around. Most days I could walk around my dorm suite fine. It seemed illogical to buy a wheelchair when I could see my legs working.
I knew at this point in time this was my only option. Now, I can’t imagine not having the freedom my chair grants me. While I still miss class occasionally for health issues, the number of days has significantly decreased.
Accepting the wheelchair also meant accepting the fact that I have a disability. Before, I reasoned with myself that I just had a few health issues that would resolve itself. With this one purchase, I had to face that I had a clear disability (at least a clear visible disability — which is a story for another article).
Once I accepted that I had a disability, so many things became clear. Problems I struggled with in education, jobs, relationships, my mental health and more had a name to it: I recognized invasive questions in job interviews for the inappropriate microaggression that they were; I noticed a pattern with experiencing a disappointing health day with a poor mental health day the next. I faced so many problems with accessibility, both physical and social, that I never fully allowed myself to see before I accepted this.
There is so much miseducation out there. So many negative comments come more from places with ignorance than malice, but discrimination and ableism hurts all the same. Almost everyone in my life I have had to teach. When it comes to disability, so little conversation seems to be happening.
In the last year, I’ve really made it my mission to start that conversation and make others around me feel welcome to ask questions. I know it can’t get better until people learn. I don’t expect others with disabilities to always be open to educating 24/7, and I don’t want to spend every second of my day teaching others as well. It can be exhausting, and disabled people and people of other minorities aren’t placed in the world to educate you.
However, on my own time, opening people’s minds is something I’m passionate about. So far, I’ve helped start a disability group on campus called D-CARES (Disability Connections, Advocacy, Resources, Education and Support) and am excited to work with Women’s and Gender Studies department as a work-study student on their theme of Gender and Disability for this year. Beyond educating people without disabilities, I wish to help foster acceptance within those that do have them.
In this column, I hope to tackle a number of issues that disabled people face in their lives, including visibility (or lack thereof), the world of doctors, mental illness, boundaries, education, accessibility, relationships and the workplace. I’m excited to start this dialogue and hope you’ll engage with me.