“Oh, I just walk funny. That’s all.”
For many years, let’s say at least all of elementary school, that was my constant retort. I obviously knew that I had cerebral palsy, but beyond that, I didn’t know any better. How could I? Who would I have learned from?
This was before the daily, often debilitating pain. When I could run, and jump, and for one fleeting summer, ride a pink bike with modified pedals and training wheels in tight circles around my backyard patio. This was when my life revolved around interventions to increase and expand my functionality, not around preserving function and mitigating damage.
I think, at this point in my life, that I had no idea that I was disabled. Was I aware that there were things that I simply just could not do? Sure. I’m looking at you, skipping. Did I realize that I was different from everyone else? Oh, absolutely. When I say that I grew up in a community that did not see my disability? I mean that almost literally. “Oh, that’s just Ashley, she’s Leca and Dean’s girl. She was born mighty early when they were down in Charleston. She just walks a little funny, that’s all.”
Sitting in the back of my first grade classroom, behind a clunky old wheelchair desk drug up from basement storage after 15 years, I had no idea that there were other people out there, millions of them actually, that were just like me. Let alone that there was one other student with a hemiplegic CP diagnosis in that same small rural elementary school. I didn’t know, as I was shuttled away to various storage rooms, closets, and gym equipment rooms for my twice weekly physical therapy sessions while I heard my classmates shrieking and playing during PE and recess on the other side of the doors — I had literally no idea that there were many others living a very similar experience.
I knew nothing of what it meant to be disabled. Nothing of the greats that came before me and paved the way for the ADA to be signed some eight years prior. I knew nothing of the nuanced identity and rich connections that disability would offer me later in my life. At that point, all I could have hoped for was to see myself in someone else.
And I would, on a crowded platform in Penn station on a bitterly cold December evening some 18 years later.