I knew I was different when I was three. Not long after that, I knew I could use my disability to get what I wanted and get out of what I didn’t want. I used my disability as excuse as to why I couldn’t participate in gym class, why people didn’t like me and excluded me, and why I couldn’t do things I didn’t want to do or thought I would fail at doing. People accepted my excuses and also made excuses for me, but I believe that this is something everyone does for themselves and other people. I used to be close friends with a girl who has Asperger’s syndrome, and when other people complained about her social behaviour, I defended her by telling them that she had Asperger’s syndrome and that was just how she communicated. People have done the same for me to my face and behind my back. I used to take advantage of it all the time and I got away with it. Now that I’m more aware of it – and working to overcome it – I try not to use it to ‘explain’ or ‘understand’ circumstances that involve rejection, failure, and mistakes. I was never allowed to fail at anything and never allowed to make my own mistakes. My family were always steps ahead of me – physically and metaphorically – to make sure that I never failed, but this was in some ways detrimental. It took me a long time to develop responsibility and accountability for my own weaknesses and failures. I couldn’t always use my disability as the primary reason for everything that went wrong or was hard in my life.
People have told me to use my disability as part of ‘equal opportunity’ to help me secure internships and jobs, but that instils three fears in me: the fear that people will hire me on the basis of feeling like they should ‘give a disabled person a chance’, the fear that they believe that my disability will affect my work competence (before they get to know me) and the fear that they will keep me even if I don’t do well ‘just because I have a disability’ (this has happened before). Mentors of mine have also ‘explained’ my disability to employers pre-emptively (with the best intentions) but this gives them an ‘idea’ of me (and my capabilities) before they even meet me that I feel I have to work to challenge or overcome. I feel that because people know I am impaired before I even begin working for them, I have to work twice as hard to prove that I am capable, competent, intelligent, and worthy of my place (rather than just being there because I have a disability). I am overly sensitive and neurotic about making mistakes, screwing things up, reflecting badly on the company I represent, and that people won’t call me on it or use the same disciplinary measures they would normally use with other employees. Whether I’d like it to or not, the fact that I have an impairment affects every aspect of my working life.
In the spring of last year, I interviewed two people who owned a company and wrote a profile on them for a specialist magazine. They read the work and were unhappy with it; they pulled their advertisement from the publication. The only consequence I received was the word that the company had lost money. I am unaware of how the company has dealt with other contributors when this has happened, so I have nothing to compare it to. I don’t know if my employers were gentler on me or treated me the same as they would anyone else. I didn’t have my disability to ‘explain’ for this failure because it has never factored into my ability to interview, research, write, and produce material. I felt very guilty about the whole experience – and I still do – and when I finished that internship I was told I needed more life and work experience because I was very sheltered. I didn’t (and still don’t) disagree, and it made me motivated to keep working, learning, and to break further out of my sheltered environment.
I don’t think I have ever relaxed into the fact that mistakes are part of life and bound to happen to everyone, disabled or not. I think I have come to believe that when I am fully better, I will be bulletproof and I won’t make the same mistakes I did when I was young (or I won’t make mistakes at all). I have been told innumerable times that I am too hard on myself and that I should give myself more credit, loosen up, take a breath, and enjoy my life. Even if I recover completely from cerebral palsy, I will still make mistakes in every aspect of life: university, work, relationships, and continued therapy. I have to accept that this is unavoidable.
A friend of mine recently posted a YouTube clip of ‘news bloopers’ on her Facebook page. Professional reporters, journalists, anchors, writers, and analysts make mistakes on air (that are then posted on YouTube for people to laugh at). While compiling a video of people’s professional errors isn’t exactly kind, it serves as a reminder that everyone screws up from time to time. Even the brightest scholars, most experienced doctors, most seasoned barristers and most talented dancers make mistakes. I cannot correlate my disability or my mistakes to my worth as a person, and I cannot use my disability as an excuse when life is less than perfect. Life is imperfect as it is, and we’d have nothing to learn from if it weren’t.