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.


  1. I relate so much to the humiliating experiences in school. I'm sorry you went through that, too.

  2. Oh I adore you and your courage. I think you should talk to the professor, because he wants to know more about CP and knowledge is power. It sounds awful but until you are either living with a disability or love someone with one, you just do not know anything about it. I know I was totally ignorant before Bridget. I thought I knew, if you know what I mean....

    Now there are two people I want to go back in time for you and punch them in the nose :) I feel so bad because Bridget just started adaptive PE and the lady is incredible. Getting peers to do PE with Bridget in a way that highlights the PE and not her disability.

    The more I right disability, I think that term needs to be updated. Because you are so right, you might have a disability but it does not mean in any way shape or form that you are not able.

  3. Good for you speaking up to the condescending therapist. Talking like that is a terrible habit, especially for someone in her position. You may have done her a big favor! As for the professor, to me a lot would depend on why he wants to talk with you about your CP. Is it a professional interest because it relates to his academic discipline? Is it because he wants to make sure you get needed accommodations? Or is he just curious?


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