Adult: “what do you want to be when you grow up”, me (as a child): “I want to work with young children” but secretly saying “I want to be like my brother”…. I know what you are probably thinking “why are you saying that secretly, that should be something you should be proud of”, it’s not for the reasons you may think. I have a condition called cerebral palsy. It was caused by a stroke before I was born. My entire right side of my body and the way I take in information is affected, as a part of my brain is dead.
If someone were to ask how would you describe your childhood? I would say Good……but extremely frustrating.
Growing up, I was apprehensive of talking about my disability because there were times where I did talk about my disability and the other person would treat/talk to me as if I’m 4 years old.
I knew I was different from the age of about two and a half but didn’t realise it was my disability until I was 15. I remember watching my cousin who was 4 at the time tying her shoelace and feeling stupid for only gaining weeks previous. School was hard, not academically but emotionally. The school I was in had a variety of disabilities and some of these were detrimental as these resulted in a lot of death, which affected me emotionally. Coming to terms of having a disability, along with death was difficult to process as a child. In one particular term, there were 4 deaths and even though the school was very supportive, it was a struggle to comprehend that a child as young as 3 could die, when you’re a child yourself. Through this process, I had to learn how to be brave and emotionally strong.
Developing friendships was always something I struggled with growing up. No-one on my road was willing to adapt games so I could join in and my classmates from school lived far enough away from me. I would try to ask non-disabled children if they wanted to play but the minute I had my back turned, they would run away. I remember my brother’s friends would knock for him and say “is Jonny home” (my brother’s nickname) and would think “why can’t have that, why can’t someone knock for me and invite me to play”. I love my brother and his friends. His friends were always there for him, through the highs and lows and I always wanted that. While making new friends, id always ask myself “how long will this friendship last”.
Even though my disability is classed as physical, it only really affected 5% of my life. The language and attitudes around disability was a challenge that was prevalent in my life. I have suffered really bad mental health issues as a result of this. The first time I heard the words “retard” and “handicapped” was about four or five and understanding that these were negative labels for those with disabilities. Hearing these terms so much made me associate myself with those words as a young child. The definition of the term “retard” is to be developmentally slow but can hold the same amount of degrading value as calling a person of colour the N-word. Growing up it felt like I constantly had to prove I’m something that I’m not…and trust me it’s exhausting. My mam always says that I always work hard in my education but I’ve had to. I know I put a lot of pressure but I refuse to let my disability hold me hostage.
Im not my disability, it’s only a small part of who I am, not the whole picture.
The term “handicapped” was used in the 1800s when a disabled person was made to beg in the streets with a cap in their hand if they had no-one to care for them. This term is so incorrect. Many people with disabilities have jobs, families and living the same way as any other person. When I first moved to a mainstream school, a girl in my class was unhappy with being in the class I was in and said: “the teachers treat us like we’re handicappers”. Even though I don’t wish any ill will towards this girl, those words still haunt me seven/eight years on.
It was estimated that during the holocaust nearly 250,000 disabiled people were murdered for a law that seen disability as a desease.
Even though it’s not as drastic, Disabled people are still fighting to be seen as a person. The use of derogatory terms makes the battle harder to fight. We all have a role to play in changing attitudes towards disability. Just close your eyes. Imagine the person you care about most in the world is called “retard” or “handicapped”, how would you feel?….angry, upset?. This is why I have become more vocal about the issue. I will continue to do so until my dying breath. Nobody should feel like they are not accepted in society, we have a right to be accepted. Saying you care about those with disabilities and using these terms, is contradicting yourself, as you are basically ostracizing the individual with the disability.
My amazing parents always tried to give me the same opportunities as my brother. They always tried to protect me from the hurt caused by society. Looking back on my childhood, I wish I could go back and say “everything will be ok, don’t worry”. I grew up being grateful for the parents I had because they always tried to get me involved in everything. The challenges I faced wasn’t a result of their parenting, it was just a result of life. They have inspired me to develop my dream of opening a pre-school/ creche where families with disabled children can be supported as a unit in all aspects of their lives. Every decision they made was the right one. I always knew that it was based on what they thought was best for me. I know there are times where it looked like I don’t appreciate all they have done for me when I always did. I was constantly frustrated as I looked like I fit into what society considers “the norm” but I didn’t.
I’m very lucky with the lecturers that I had throughout college because they were more than willing to help as much as they could. One particular lecturer would adapt all activities that involved being physical. An example of this is when an activity involved walking on uneven ground blindfolded and she suggested that could direct and ensure that my classmates didn’t run into a tree. I depend a lot on my sight for balance, as I can go over on my ankle and fall if I’m unable to see where my foot is.
In 1st and 2nd year, I was embarrassed to ask for help. I was in a constant battle of thinking and feeling that “Lorna you should know this, it’s not that hard” and understanding my brain works differently. I felt that if I asked the lecturers they would say “I can’t simplify it any more than I already have” but when I did they were more than happy to help. They would reframe the information or give examples to help with my understanding of the content. I would be so relieved when one of the girls in the class would voice that they didn’t understand because it felt like I wasn’t the only one who was struggling.
There was a time in my life where I questioned whether I should be in early childhood. This is because there were a few educators in the past that seen my disability as more of a hindrance than the benefits that will come from it. In 3rd year placement, I realised how valuable it is to have educators with disabilities working in the sector, as the children were constantly asking if there was anything they could do to help me…they were SIX!!!, I don’t get this from grown adults.
I now know that Early childhood is exactly where i need to be and no one is going to take the joy i get from working with children from me
My beautiful nana was an amazing woman, one of which I wish every little girl had growing up, taught me to see the beauty within my imperfections and how to accept and love myself for who I am. She gave me the knowledge that as long as you have a beautiful heart, you are beautiful regardless of what you look like or your ability. She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, which gave me the confidence to chase my dreams. She would always push me to reach my full potential, which enabled me to see I was meant for something bigger than just me. I knew I could overcome any challenge that came my way because of her. At my lowest points, she helped me understand that I shouldn’t let my mental health nor my disability hold me prisoner. Having a disability isn’t a death sentence, it’s just taking the scenic route to life. To this day I well and truly believe she was my real-life guardian angel. Since her death in 2017, I vowed to thank her in the way I work with children and pass on the beautiful lessons she taught me. I only hope she’s up there saying “that’s my baby”.
My cousin Nelson is my biggest inspiration. Regardless of the adversity he’s faces, he always bounces back and comes out triumphant. He has taught me that through hard work, determination and focusing on all the joys life brings, you can have a beautiful life. He has made me realise I shouldn’t be afraid to take great opportunities that are in front of me and be the master of my own destiny. He always gives me the motivation to do better and be proud of my achievements I would see his social media posts and think “wow I want to be that passionate about my job”. I don’t get the opportunity to talk to him much but when I do, I find my anxiety levels go down and the feeling of being “normal” returns. Speaking to him feels so natural and when get muddled up in my words he doesn’t bat an eyelid.
The Saturday before my Christmas exams he rang me randomly and even though the phone call only lasted 15 minutes, I felt like he was silently saying to me “relax, you’ve got this, I believe in you”. Before this phone call, I was running around like a headless chicken and the minute I got off the phone, I was able to pull myself together and understood exactly how to approach the studying. He has helped to completely change my mindset to how I look at life.
Not many people understand the effects of the attitudes and language towards disability like my best friend Eimear. Throughout my life, she has helped me see that I had valid reasons to feel frustrated when I felt like I was going crazy. I met her when I was five and the first thing I said to her was “come ere you, put this on, your my new best friend”. She taught me that I was never meant to fit into the box that society put me in and embrace the beauty that comes with having a disability. She’s the perfect mixture of understanding the frustration that comes with my disability but never lets me throw a pity party over it.
The crazy thing is I’ve never thought about my disability when I was around her, even if it’s not that often. She just accepted me with no questions asked. In many ways, she gave me something that I craved my whole life and that was the feeling of being “normal”. The photo above was taken on the first day we met. It is the only photo where I don’t see my disability. Over the years I have tried so hard to see it but I simply can’t. I just see two little girls, who are best friends.
My friends from the summer project I volunteer at, along with the girls in college never judged me for my difficulties. They understand the signs of when I need help and offer it before I even have to ask. They all, even Eimear, have helped to rewire my brain, so I can see myself in a positive light. My friends all stand up for me when I feel that I cant do it for myself. I have never been so grateful for them. These were the type of people I wanted to be friends with as a little girl. I now understand that I needed to go through the struggle of developing friendships, to appreciate them the way I do.
2019 wasn’t a great year for my family and my friends were constantly there asking if there was anything they could do for us or just doing check-ins. One even texted my mam to say if there was anything she could, just let her know. I cried because no one has done that before. These are the people who I want to be in the rest of my life. They are the ones who I want to be a part of my future children’s lives because I know they will have their back, just like they’ve had mine.
Writing this article made me realise that I don’t want to be “normal”, normal is boring and having a disability is like throwing colour into a world that is full of black and white.
how you could help those with disabilities/ cerebral palsy:
- For lectures: do check-ins with students. It can be short and sweet and can be done once or twice during the semester while tidying up after class.
- Ask someone if they would like some help. It could be as simple as holding a door open but respect if they say no.
- Stop using derogatory terms. There’s no if’s or buts about it, just don’t do it!!!!
- For ECCE students, encourage children to talk about difference and disability. children are naturally curious. Being different is nothing to be ashamed of, its beautiful.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Trust me we don’t bite but don’t speak to us like we are 4, it’s very disrespectful.