In September 2009, I moved from my hometown of Winnipeg to do a degree at Royal Holloway in Egham. I had spent the past nine months in Toronto studying at Ryerson University’s Chang School and doing intensive physiotherapy and pilates. I was two years into my physical rehabilitation therapy and my body had changed so much as a result of the work I did every day. I did pilates five days per week, had massage therapy twice per week, went to physiotherapy once per week, and played balance games on the Wii Fit every day. The intensive training helped to reduce the noticeable signs of my disability. My pelvis untwisted. My legs became straighter. My shoulders and clavicle opened. My limp became less obvious and my walking less clunky. I also lost weight and carried myself differently. My father told me in early August of that year that I presented differently when I walked into a room because I wasn’t always looking for a handrail. One of the hardest things about having a physical disability is that complete strangers often come up to me and ask me what happened to me or what is wrong with me. My usual response is that I have a physical disability. More often than not, I get defensive (though I try not to respond in this way) and, sometimes, I can be rude to people who ask me (out of frustration that they have asked). As I prepared to move from Toronto to England, I wondered how people would treat me, what people would notice about my body and my walk, and what people would say to me and ask me about it.
I was very surprised when I moved to Egham. People didn’t ask me. People didn’t mention it at all. It made me wonder what they were thinking and saying about it when I wasn’t around. There were some times when I would have to ask for help (and then I would try to explain as simply and succinctly as possible that I had a mobility difficulty and needed help with that specific task). People always helped me without questions or complaint. They were polite and courteous, which I appreciated. One of my classmates helped me carry a cup of hot tea, and people would often help me step down from the train to the platform if they saw me hesitating or I asked for a hand.
I moved to central London this past October and was surprised when people either mentioned my mobility or asked me about it. In late October, I caught up with an old friend whom I’d gone to Royal Holloway with; she told me that everyone in Egham and at Holloway noticed my mobility problem but that people there are very reserved, conservative, and also embarrassed to ask. In central London, people are more openly curious. I try not to take offense when people ask me. I usually just say, ‘I’m physically impaired’ or ‘I have a physical disability’ but the change in attitude has forced me to adjust to being asked. In late January, I had three strangers in less than one week ask me what was wrong with me. I told each of them that I had a physical impairment.
It hurts more now to be asked about my body and walk because it used to be so much worse and so much more obvious. The fact that people notice enough of a problem with me is a vicious reminder of how much work I still have left to do even though I have been working so hard for more than five years. I understand that I have to accept that there might always be some visibility of my cerebral palsy (especially when I’m tired or drunk) but that most people who ask don’t have malicious intentions. In the moment, when people ask or point out my limp to me, I get angry with myself more than anything else. Then I use the frustration and hurt as motivation to work harder so that I can have the most normal and well-functioning body and walk that I can. I use the pain as a motivational tool to keep pushing and get better.