Learning to Drive With a Disability

As I was entering my teenage years, my parents and I were unsure whether I’d be able to drive a car. However, as with most things in my life, I knew I wanted to drive a car, and I was going to do anything I possibly could to make that happen.

While I didn’t drive a car until I obtained my permit, I was driving as early as 5 years old. I used to drive my Barbie Jeep around and around my neighborhood for hours on end. I’d turn on the little Barbie radio in the Jeep and “floor it,” flying down the sidewalk in my hot pink Barbie Jeep. As I got older, my Barbie Jeep transitioned to a go-cart and eventually a four-wheeler, but the go-carts we had were always my favorite. I know I likely drove way too fast, but I remember my neighborhood used to say that they always knew when I had my go-cart out because they’d hear my laughter and screams all the way down the block. Therefore, when I eventually got behind the wheel of a car, I had years of driving practice already. It’d be a piece of cake, right? Not quite.

I have spastic diplegia cerebral palsy, meaning my CP primarily impacts my legs and causes them to be incredibly stiff. Due to the stiffness of my legs and because I knew that my legs had a tendency to involuntarily shake if my foot was placed in a particular position (called clonus), I was pretty nervous about learning to drive a car. I didn’t know if I’d be able to move my foot from the gas to the brake quickly or easily enough. I also didn’t know whether my legs would become tired quicker due to having to be flexed when using the gas pedal and brake pedal. I had been told by my physical therapist at the time that there was always the option to utilize hand controls to control the gas and the brake as opposed to using my legs. However, I also knew that I wanted to do my best to drive just like everyone else.

A benefit I had when learning to drive was the fact that I lived in a small town. Because of that, I practiced driving on dirt roads, empty back roads that hardly had any traffic, and through town where the speed limit was only 25 miles per hour. Typical kids learning to drive might have been frustrated by this, but I was not. I wanted to become as comfortable driving on country back roads as I could. In order to test my response time, we’d be driving around and my mom would say “deer” (proof that we lived in the south), and I’d pretend I saw a deer in order to practice slamming on the brakes. We learned pretty quickly that I had no problem moving my right foot back and forth between the brake and the gas (which was a major relief on my part because I didn’t want to have to utilize hand controls).

The most important thing for me when learning to drive was taking it slow. Initially, due to my own fears, I drove really, really, really slow, but that changed as I became more comfortable. Once I got my permit, took driver’s ed, and accrued a certain number of driving hours, I was ready to take the driving aspect of the test to obtain my license. And despite all the practice I had, I was completely terrified.

When I took the driving test with a woman from the DMV in the passenger’s seat, initially everything was fine. However, within a few minutes my legs started shaking so badly that it was difficult to keep my foot steadily on the gas. The DMV woman noticed the shaking and said, “Why are you shaking like that?” I responded, “I shake when I’m nervous,” not wanting to bring up my disability for fear of her using that against me when determining if I passed or failed the test. Upon hearing my response, she asked me to pull over so I could “compose myself,” though I knew that no amount of sitting still would prevent my legs from shaking. Eventually, the shaking lessened to the point where I got back on the road and completed the test. Once we returned to the DMV, the woman’s response wasn’t what I was expecting. She said, “You almost didn’t pass,” as opposed to, “Congratulations.” Looking back on it now, I still feel like she was just overall skeptical about my ability to drive a car.

Because of my disability, learning to drive wasn’t just about getting my license and having a car to drive. It was so much more than that. It meant independence. It meant feeling included as a functional member of society. But more than anything, it opened so many doors in my future. There have been a few instances where people have been surprised to learn I am able to drive on my own, and I know in the disability world it is no easy feat. But I also know that if I had been unable to drive, I would have found some other way to take on an active role in my world. After all, my life has always been one of adaptation, but it has never been one of defeat.

 

To Those Who Taught Me To Dream

When I was little, I wanted nothing more than to be a ballerina. Around Christmastime, my grandmother would take me to see The Nutcracker at the Koger Center. As I sat up in the balcony in my checkered dress and patent leather shoes, I stared with admiration at the character of Clara. I imagined myself twirling around in my own leotard with a toy nutcracker in my hands, lost in the music and a dance that was all my own. When I got home from seeing The Nutcracker, I’d put on my leotard and tutu, grab a favorite stuffed animal at the time, and twirl in circles to the music only I could hear.

It was in those moments, in the safety of my childhood bedroom, that I began to dream, imagining doing things I knew I wouldn’t be able to do in reality due to my disability. I imagined dancing with a grace I had seen only in ballerinas. I put on my ballet shoes and twirled until my unstable balance got the best of me and I fell to the floor in frustration. I even remember asking my parents if I could take ballet lessons, determined to learn how to create the beauty I had seen in the character of Clara. The opportunity never arose though, simply because I didn’t have the balance to be a ballerina. Despite walking on my tiptoes, twirling around in circles on those same tiptoes was out of the question.

As I got older and I filled my head with more realistic dreams, I never stopped imagining doing the things I’d never be able to fully experience. I thought of dancing to the music of my world. I imagined running down the street and feeling the wind on my face as I chased the orange and red sunset I saw in the distance. I pictured myself climbing the huge oak tree in my backyard, wanting nothing more than to find a sturdy limb I could sit on so I could rest my back against the tree’s broad trunk and escape into my favorite book. The creative imagination I possessed placed me right into the worlds I dreamed, though I knew I was so far away from actually experiencing them.

I am forever grateful to the people throughout my life who have encouraged my imagination and dreams. Though I was constantly reminded by other kids around me of the things I was unable to do, so many of the adult figures in my life understood the importance of believing in my creativity. Because of those individuals, I have learned what it means to still hope and strive for the things that still seem a bit out of reach. Through my ability to dream, I developed a determination that has propelled me through my life, despite stumbling again and again. While I may not have had the chance to be a ballerina who twirls endlessly with the grace of a perfect melody, I have sung my heart out at a voice recital, capturing an entire room with the simple sound of my voice. I have participated in theatre productions, achieving my moment in the spotlight by being Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. I have written of specific moments of pain during the months following intense operations, creating the same tears in the eyes of my readers that I possessed during my moments of defeat. Though I may not have had the chance to live the experiences I longed for, I have continued to move to the song of my own life, continuously grateful to those who taught me to dream and create my own destiny.

I’m back!

After months of trying to remember my log in information for this blog, I’m finally back. Truly, it feels incredible. So much has happened since I have been on this blog, and yet even typing in this semi-constrained white box is the most free I have felt in a long time. Honestly, I don’t remember the last time I sat down to write for myself. Ever since August, my life has been full to the brim with graduate school, an internship, and some form of a life. Though I’ve loved it, it’s been busy, and within the chaos, I’ve somehow drifted away from writing…away from that part of myself that aches to breathe through words…away from the part of myself that I typically keep hidden from the word, unless I’m within the blogosphere (crazy enough).

Well, friends, I’m back…for the long haul. When I first started graduate school back in August, I was so overwhelmed that I thought I had to choose between writing and the growth of my future career as a mental health therapist/social worker. However, by not giving myself writing time over the past six months, I’ve felt more distant from my own life than ever before. So maybe it’s not about choosing one passion over another. Maybe it’s about making room in my life for both passions.

Therefore, this is my attempt to do that. Whether it’ll mean blogging once a week or twice a week, I’m not sure. But, I’m here, and at this point, that’s all that matters. I’m not entirely sure where this blog will go from here, though I do suspect I’ll continue with some Cerebral Palsy posts. After all, it goes along with this blog’s name. Despite the amount of posts I’ve already written about what it’s like to live with Cerebral Palsy, there are always more. Though they’ve lessened over time, there’s still so much to talk about…so many memories I haven’t even attempted to revisit yet. However, due to taking the writing break, I think I’m more prepared to tackle the harder memories now than ever before. So, here’s to future writing, and most of all, here’s to all of you: all the lovely bloggers I’ve connected with over the past 4 years. If you’ve stuck with me from the beginning, I fully appreciate you beyond words. If not…if you’re new to my blog…you’ve come at just the right time.

On The Right Road

This past Saturday, I graduated from college with a Bachelors in Psychology. As I sat in the third row among my classmates, barely viewable among a sea of blue, I was happy. I wasn’t the girl a few seats over who kept having to wipe away her tears. I wasn’t the guy one row in front of me who looked bored, as if he’d rather be any other place than seated among his classmates. I was the girl in the third row whose gaze kept moving back and forth between the keynote speaker and section 4 of the arena where my friends and family were sitting. I was the girl who was soaking up every moment.

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Author and higher education expert, Arthur Levine, was the keynote speaker at my graduation ceremony. At first, when he began discussing the current state of our economy and the degree of technological change within our society, I became bored. These were things I had heard countless times, especially within the bubble of a liberal arts university. However, what he said later made me perk up my ears.

“We need your help as part of the most diverse generation in U.S. history – we need your help to knit together a deeply divided nation,” said Levine. “We need your help in dreaming, designing and developing a new world tied together by technology. … We need your abilities and imaginations to create the first global society in history. … Tomorrow’s going to require leaders who want to help heal a pained nation and a troubled world – you can make a difference. … Making a difference is your birthright.” (courtesy of the UNC Asheville website)

Specifically, the last part of this passage touched me, most importantly the idea of helping to heal and make a difference. In many ways, since I have chosen to pursue my master’s degree in social work beginning in August, I felt as if Arthur Levine was speaking only to me. There were moments in which it felt like he was looking right at me. It was as if he was simply reassuring me that I am moving into the right field, while also moving into a profession that I have a true passion for. Receiving this kind of reassurance, which I assume was not his intention, was one of the greatest graduation gifts I could hope to have been given. It was as if the universe was saying, Yep, you’re doing exactly what you need to be doing, so keep going.

Therefore, rather than processing out of my graduation ceremony with a sense of worry and dread, I held my head high. I smiled because for the first time in my life, I truly felt like I was on the right road to start doing what I’m meant to do. What I also realized was that I’ve been doing just that for the past few years. I have been following my passion of helping others ever since I decided to open up about my experiences with Cerebral Palsy in January of 2012, and that passion has only increased since I have started speaking to elementary and middle schools on the topic of bullying as it relates to my CP experiences. So, though I haven’t started my master’s program yet, I do feel like I have been on the right road for a while now. Truthfully, I think I knew that the first time someone contacted me after reading a blog post of mine to tell me how opening up about my experiences has helped them to better understand what their son, their daughter, or they themselves are going through.

As I continue to enjoy my summer, and specifically focus more strongly on writing my memoir, I’ll push myself forward by knowing that I am helping others. Even if it’s just one person, I am helping that person to become more aware of disabilities. I am helping them to see the one thing that I myself still struggle to see sometimes: Different is beautiful.