Fitting In & Losing Out

My goal at the end of this entry is to figure out why I was so scared of, embarrassed by, distancing of, and well, on many days just downright pissed off by my disability as a teenager. So here we go.

It wasn't just that I struggled privately to fit in. So privately in fact that when I broke my ulna getting a snack out from the vending machine, I went and told my favorite teacher first before going to the nurse's office.
The sleeve of my t-shirt caught on my joystick as I leaned forward to get my snack out. I rammed face forward into the vending machine, I felt the bone crack, and I'm sure if anyone in that cafeteria was paying attention - I'd quickly become the laughing stock of the high school in no time! But no one was paying attention as I discreetly untangled myself. Immediately my gut instinct was: I can't tell any of my friends about what just happened, not even my best friend. I need to tell an adult I can trust, someone who will not be annoying and freak out in that annoying way. For me that person was my 9th grade English teacher whose class I had the next period. I slipped into his empty classroom and told him, quietly. He looked at me and told me to stay put and then he left. (To get the nurse, and presumably to tell her to not freak out in that annoying way...) I sat in the empty classroom and read ahead in Catcher in the Rye while I waited.

The point of that snippet isn't just to explain that every kid needs to have a trusted adult, not just in their lives but in their school! That memory also serves to illustrate how I wanted to fit in so badly that I risked being in pain for fear that my friends would find out what they already knew: that I have a disability and that my bones break easily. Of course the sequence of events now doesn't make sense to me, but it was crystal clear in my head at the time.
I didn't want things to be a big deal. I didn't want things to be bigger or more noticeable than whatever impression my wheelchair, or my hearing-aids gave off. And those impressions as far as I was concerned were all negative, or on a good day they were at best 'awkward.'

Why was this?

It's beyond the fact that I didn't see or know anyone else who used a wheelchair like me. It's about more than just having always been the only kid in a wheelchair at school. I believe this because at that age I'm pretty confident that even if there was another kid in a wheelchair, the last thing I would have done would be to befriend them. Because the thing is I hated being someone with a disability at the time. It's not because I was ever bullied for it - (because I was that kid in school who had a swift and biting comment for everyone, unafraid to mouth off with a smart aleck comment at both peers and teachers.) Now that I've popped enough zits, taken enough standardized tests, found the right balance between deodorant & perfume to claim my scent, and been on enough angsty teenage dates where we never left the car.. I think that I can shine some insight onto why I was so despising of this part of myself:

There was no place or reason for me to feel proud of my identity as a disabled young person. The environment that I was in (by no fault of their own!) just didn't have a place where having a disability would get me more friends, earn top grades in class, be invited to parties on the weekends, get me into college, allow me to earn my driver's permit, or even something as simple as just talking about it. Instead it was just some label that as far as I was concerned, sent me to the nurse's office or got me picked up from school early to go to my orthopedic's office. It was just the reason for why sometimes I got to skip Spanish class because I had physical therapy. It was the reason for why I had my own gym class where I was either doing cardio, swimming, or playing badminton - by myself or with the Adaptive Phys Ed teacher.
Thinking back on it now I realize that at that time, even if it's with just one other friend be they in real life or online - it matters a lot that there was some kind of space or time where a teen might be able to feel proud of the various aspects of who they are. Maybe it's debate team, maybe it's the school play, maybe it's on the soccer field, maybe it's online with video games, maybe it's at temple or church.. but at the time I hadn't found a space to feel proud of being disabled.
Not knowing what else to do with 'being disabled' aside from treating it with surgeries and casts - I found it easier to squelch and hate it. It's true what they say, it's easier to hate something than to love and understand. Too easy, in fact I realize that now. Being disabled wasn't what made those four years of high school so difficult and miserable, it was the way I saw 'being disabled.'

Thoughts of what may have been or could have been don't really serve any purpose for me. Instead what I can do now is to write honestly about my experiences when I was a teen. I can be involved in youth programs through Easter Seals. I can wear an awesome Don't DisAbility t-shirt.. because who knows the impact I might have by being visible, and creating that sense of pride no matter how small it might be.

Readers of the blog know, by now, that I don't hate that part of myself anymore. It would be great if every young person with a disability could say that about themselves far sooner than I did.

I've learned from this that sometimes it's harder work to find where you fit in, but you can be sure that when you do put that effort in - you won't ever lose out. You won't.

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