Thursday, October 22, 2015

Presuming (In)competence

When I was in sixth grade, I received in-school physical therapy when the rest of my peers attended gym class.

"Hel-lo there! How...was...your...week...end?"

The therapist's words were slow and measured, punctuated with several moments of silence between each syllable, and her voice was about two octaves higher than normal. I hated the way she avoided my eyes when she looked at me, staring through me as if I wasn't an actual person. I hated the way she made me strap weights to my ankles and walk through the crowd of my classmates as they participated in gym class, my face burning with humiliation as they watched me. And most of all, I hated the way she spoke to me as if I was half my age.

I endured her with forced politeness for weeks until one day, after I waited through her routine and painfully slow weekend inquiry, the words just bubbled out of me.

"Stop speaking to me like that! I understand what you're saying! Every. Single. Word. You don't need to speak so slowly! My weekend was great, and how was yours?"

That last part sounds polite when I write it here, but unfortunately I couldn't quite manage to keep the sharpness out of my voice, so she just stared at me with her mouth open, completely lost for words. I never went to in-school PT again after that.

I think she saw "cerebral palsy" in my chart and assumed, like so many others, that I was incompetent, incapable of understanding. And it's people like her that have made me hesitant to disclose my cerebral palsy to my teachers and professors.

Recently, I emailed a professor about fundraising walks he was hosting for Alzheimer's disease and autism; as part of his neuroscience class, we were expected to attend these walks. I explained that I had CP so it would be challenging for me to participate in the walks themselves, but I asked if it would be okay if I just donated to the causes, as they meant a lot to me.

His reply was gracious, and at the end of his email, he asked if I would be comfortable meeting with him sometime to discuss my CP in greater detail.

Yes, I wrote back. Of course.

But deep down, I was hesitant. Deep down, I was conflicted. Deep down, I wasn't really sure how I felt about having this conversation.

And then I talked to a friend about it.
"If you don't feel comfortable talking to him about it, then don't. You shouldn't have to talk about anything personal to a professor," she said. "But if you do talk to him about it, make sure he realizes that it's not who you are. It's just a part of you. There's a difference."

~

I don't want my professors to see my crooked legs before they see my potential. I don't want them to dock ten points off--or add ten points to--my essays and exams because I am "that girl with the damaged brain." I want to approach them about my disability but sometimes I'm not sure how.

I am not perfect, I want to say. But neither are you.

I have a disability, I want to say. But I am able.

I am different, I want to say. But so are you.

My disability isn't who I am. It's just a part of me. There's a difference.