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Life With Cerebral Palsy
Perceptions and Impressions

Photo of Elizabeth RayAs a woman in my early forties who was born with cerebral palsy, I can readily reflect upon how I am perceived by those who are not disabled and have not been around someone with a disability.

   Cerebral palsy, which affects motor function, usually occurs at birth or shortly thereafter. I think it is much easier to be born with a disability than to acquire one later in life. I do not know what it is like to be "normal."

   I am very blessed in being more independent than I ever dreamed! By God's grace, I drive an unaccepted car, work (part-time), and live alone with a wonderful outside support team. I am active in my church as well community affairs -- serving on an Independent Living Center (ILC) board as well as other activities. ILC provides advocacy, peer-support, information, and referrals. We help people with disabilities live independently. I am also a member of the local United Cerebral Palsy sports team. As you can see, not much grass grows under my feet!!

       Throughout my life, I have encountered many and varied reactions to my disability -- ranging from great acceptance to tremendous unease.

       When I first meet someone, I like to anticipate his or her reaction. Some people see me as a "person" who happens to be disabled and are quite comfortable around me. I enjoy being with those who accept me as "Elizabeth" -- even though my speech may be difficult to understand and my body cannot be still.

       I have many friends who see me as a whole person and can look beyond my disability -- many times forgetting it. I am able to be myself! I work for a law firm where I am well accepted.

       When I do need assistance, all I have to do is ask. I have had a strong family base pushing me to be as independent as possible. I am grateful to my step-father who said, "You can do it!" with a sometimes hesitant but supportive mother -- wanting me to try, yet fearful I might fall. My siblings were great encouragers.

       On the other hand, I can easily spot those people who are uncomfortable around me. Sometimes after being around me for awhile, some people "get used" to me and, thus, feel quite comfortable -- they forget my disability. One thing I stress is that I do not mind repeating something. In fact, this shows they care rather than nodding their head pretending to understand me.

       For those who are uneasy around me I usually get one of two reactions -- "Oh, you poor thing!" or "You're just such an inspiration -- you're a saint to have overcome your cerebral palsy!"

       I realize people mean well, but I see right through their insecurities. Think about the previous comments, which are usually said in a condescending manner. First of all, I'm not a "thing" -- I'm an individual, with the same thoughts, dreams, and feelings as anyone else. Secondly, I am perceived as being retarded, although I have a college degree. I was highly insulted to receive a "token" handout at the mall.

       When I am in a restaurant, my friend may be asked, "What does she want?" One day as I was getting into my car a lady inquired, "Are you going to drive that car?" I kept quiet but thought, "No, it will drive itself!"

       Recently, while flying home from Salt Lake City, the stewardess asked my friend if I understood how the oxygen worked. I chuckled to myself for two reasons. First, I have been flying for over thirty years! (In defense of airlines, I have been treated with great respect). Secondly, my former roommate had lived constantly on an oxygen tank for three years -- we were always checking the level of flow.

       For those who regard me as an "inspiration," I can respond in one of two ways. I can take the comment as a sincere compliment and thank God that He is using me as His instrument -- and I can genuinely say, "Thank you." On the other hand, I sometimes see it as an "off the cuff" remark. They do not know exactly what to say but they feel a need to say something.  Those who say that I inspire them are probably thinking, "I'm glad I'm not like her" or "Boy, she goes through so much just to be here." Yes, it may take me longer to accomplish a task and I may do it in a different manner, but God has given me grace, patience, and a lot of humor!

       I am very grateful to have achieved many goals. These goals could not have been met without the Lord, my family and my friends. My personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ enables me to "run the race."

The National Council on Independent Living works to empower and create opportunities for people with disabilities. It can be reached at:

National Council on Independent Living
1916  Wilson Blvd., Suite 209
Arlington, VA  22201
Phone: 1-703-525-3406

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http://www.heartsandminds.org/articles/elizray.htm - latest text changes April 20, 2006.

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