Note: In this article written for LD OnLine, the author discusses her experiences with two disabilities, one visible and one invisible, reflecting on how cerebral palsy and her learning disabilities impacted her life as a child and young woman.
Reflecting upon the days of my young life, I remember being full of energy and enthusiasm. Back in the spring of 1970, I was working as a sales girl at Ohrbach’s Department store. Every day I would come to work with a smile on my face and a desire to help all. It gave me a meaning and purpose to get up every day, primp and fuss, look professional, go out into the big world, and be productive in a powerful way. The job also helped me not focus on myself or my disabilities. I wanted to fit in, and bring as little attention to my disabilities as possible. Going to work everyday essentially gave me more vitality, vibrancy, and a desire to do more and accomplish more for myself.
I remember opening the heavy double glass doors to the department store, and being greeted by security managers who would playfully banter with me, “Hey Kitten, how ya doin’ today? Did you bring the sunshine in with you?” Somehow, my smile brought warmth to other people’s hearts.
But this day was different. This day brought a delight all of its own. This day I met a very handsome guy. He had black, wavy hair, brown glowing eyes, and a smile that was warm, inviting, and drew me to want to know him more. He was about 5 feet 9 inches tall, a perfect height for my 5 foot 1 inch stature. He was studying to become a doctor, and this was just a part-time job for him. The mere fact that he was interested in me made me feel accepted in ways I never did before. It transformed my feelings about myself.
In the beginning we exchanged glances, then words, and eventually he became my boyfriend. He worked in the men’s department, while I worked as a sales girl for all the departments, selling merchandise in cubicles on the main floor, right near the elevators and escalators. Being in the center of things, I would wave and cheerfully greet all the people, young and old, whom I began to know and become friend with. Somehow I drew people’s friendliness out — even Paul’s!
He would stop at my cubby any time he was passing by. When he would disembark the elevator or escalator, he would ask how I was or if I needed more merchandise. Slowly a connection grew between us, which built like a crescendo. Then one day, as I stood folding some clothes with my stronger, un-paralyzed hand, he walked up to my cubby, and asked me out. I was so excited that I was beaming from ear to ear! Paul accepted me for who I was, looking beyond my physical disability.
As a child with Cerebral Palsy (CP), I had a lot of physical therapy and dance lessons. Because of this, my physical impairment of left-side hemiplegia was not that noticeable. All I had was a limp from a leg that was 3/4 inches shorter than the other, and it was not as distinct as it had been nine years prior. I felt very blessed when my orthopedists told me to “hang up the full-length leg brace in the closet.” So to the lay person’s eyes, my limp was not obvious and did not draw attention to me as it once did, especially since I could wear dress shoes like other women my age.
However, there was one part of me that no dance lesson could ever fix. That part of me was my learning disability. Even though I had been passed from class to class, and graduated with so-called honors, I really never retained anything I learned. While my learning disability was not a visible disability, it made it impossible for me to do the things that a “normal” person would take for granted.
Paul went to Spain to continue his studies. Once he got there, he wrote. But I could not return his letters. I could not find the words to express myself, let alone put them on paper. This was devastating to me. After years of special education classes, I still could not construct a simple sentence.
All the frustrations, the ghosts and goblins, of my younger years came flooding back to me. It was happening all over again! I struggled and struggled and struggled to write to him. I tried putting words together, only to erase and rip the paper beneath my pencil. It brought back agonizing memories of sitting at my desk in third grade, ready to pull my hair out because I could not complete the work in front of me. So I started to string words together in a way that had no meaning to anybody. It seemed as though I was putting words and letters together that had absolutely no relation to what I was feeling or trying to say.
I feel that my difficulty was the result of an educational system that focused on meaningless memorization rather than real, useful learning. My teachers didn’t understand that I needed good communication skills and knowledge of how the world works in order to gain the independent life I so much wanted. I sat in a special education class for over four years with work to do by myself, a screen to block out all distractions, and a teacher who came to see how I was forging forward every four hours. It was busy work, not the one-on-one support or skills I needed to build my knowledge, self-esteem, or self confidence. Nor did it give me the tools to use later on in my adult life to make my needs and desires known, or to interact with the larger world.
Too often learning disabled young people are written off like I was. I was brought up in the 1950s. If it wasn’t for my dear mother and her deep concern about my learning discrepancies, my elementary school would have never gotten the first special education teacher in the state of California.
My teachers did what they could, but they had definite gaps in teaching, as I had in learning. Too often students with genuine learning problems were lumped together with students with other difficulties, emotional or behavioral ones for example. So my teachers had to waste a lot of time pacifying some students while ignoring the genuine learning difficulties of others.
It often looked to me as though they really didn’t want to work to find out what was truly the best for me. Moreover, they never presented a clear plan of practical possibilities. It often seemed that they didn’t even consider that I might have a good head on my shoulders despite my CP and learning disability. I really needed education experts to take a long-term view on me individually to help me build a future for myself.
So as I sat there trying to write my letter, I could not help but think of all the times in my past that I was underestimated and frustrated. I really did not want my mother to have to write this letter — I wanted it to be my letter. I also wanted to prove to myself that I could write a simple letter all on my own, without the help or coaching from anyone. I wanted to express my own feelings, in my own way, in the privacy of my own room.
Tears began to well up, and suddenly I felt crushed, and overwhelmed. I could not even put together a simple letter on my own. I felt defeated. I was so desperate. I once again turned to the only person I knew would help me, my mother. And once again my mother took it upon herself to lovingly help me. We wrote a letter that would express what I wanted to say to my boyfriend at the time.
That moment changed my life forever. It left a deep, searing impression in my heart that I wanted to overcome the obstacles before me and be respected as a writer. This was the beginning of a life-long quest to break out of a role that “experts” were comfortable subscribing to me, but was not for me!
As far as my boyfriend Paul goes, we would only have that summer together. He went his way, and I mine. But that experience was the catalyst that drove me to keep bettering myself.
For the next twenty some odd years, I never stopped reaching for my goals. The most recent of my achievements was publishing my fictionalized autobiography, The Broken Hoof. This book took me full circle. After twenty years of compiling it, the words I wrote sang sweetly in my heart.
About the Author
Karen is an advocate for individuals with physical and learning disabilities. She developed a website, Whispers of Hope , to inspire people with disabilities to improve their lives. She teaches fitness classes, advocates for other people who have disabilities and helps them reach their dreams. Her fictionalized autobiography, The Broken Hoof, was published by PublishAmerica in 2006.