By: Valarie Robbins
Mother, grandmother, Catholic, counselor, and avid reader. These are just a few words to describe me. Oh yes, and a person with a disability. Some might say I buried the lead. I say I led with what is most important. I thought everyone did, until a couple of years back.
When I was 30 years old, I was hired at a non-profit to mentor teens all of who had various disabilities. In an effort to get to know one another, they were asked to write down 10 words to describe themselves. I did the same. To my surprise, they all began with their diagnosis. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. To their amazement, my list did not name my condition. I thought about it for the longest time. I believe the difference was in how we were raised.
My parents were tough as they knew the world would be even tougher. I was not viewed as special, there was no room for excuses, and I was to pull my weight just as my brother did. My parents were not college educated, but my dad insisted I go to college as in his words, “I was gifted with intellect that would allow me to do what my body could not.” It was clear, I would have to stand on my own two feet regardless of how they worked and I wouldn’t be living at home forever. This was their greatest gift to me.
In my professional experience, parents fall into two categories. The first are parents who set low expectations. This causes children to believe they have no potential and they struggle to find their purpose. Yet, we are all placed here for a reason. Equip your children to find theirs. The second is those families who buy into the, “they can do anything they set their mind too” mentality. This is just as detrimental, as it is unattainable. You wouldn’t hire me to be your surgeon as I lack the coordination necessary to be successful. Help your children be realistic. Be honest about their abilities. Teach them to respect their limitations.
I am not ashamed to be a member of the disability community. Just the opposite. Trust me, I couldn’t hide my condition if I wanted to. My awkward gait and my crutch are an immediate giveaway. I am aware this is likely the first thing most people notice about me. It is up to me to leave an impression that I am so much more than what they see or think they know. By owning my story, I control the narrative. I have cerebral palsy. It is what I have, not who I am. It is a part of me. I wouldn’t change it, as it helped mold me into who I am today. Thankfully, I was taught to be comfortable in my own skin. At 49, I find myself once again needing to call on everything I know to become comfortable in my own skin as I am now a burn survivor, but that is a story for another time.