One of the questions that most people ask when they meet me is, “How does your disability affect your daily life, and did you have a tough childhood?” As someone who has been affected by cerebral palsy (CP) for over 50 years, sometimes it’s easy to forget that I even have it. To me, it’s just part of who I am, just like knowing that I have brown eyes or that I’m left handed.
- My type of CP, which is known in the medical profession as spastic cerebral palsy, no longer causes me as much trouble in my daily life as it did when I was a child. I can, after all, bathe and dress myself, cook my own meals from scratch if I choose, work from home as a freelance writer and online reviewer, run errands (as long as they are within walking distance), and entertain myself on my own.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that I didn’t have any difficulties when I was a kid or even a young adult. On the contrary, I had to deal with what William Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows” of life as a disabled person living in a society and culture geared toward a mostly non-disabled population.
Most of these difficulties were often caused by physical factors such as having to handle such things as pens, tools, and even buttons that require fine motor skills. Others were caused by emotional issues, such as being made to feel “odd,” “different,” “unqualified,” and even “defective” by non-disabled kids and even adults.
If you’ve read some of my earlier posts, I’ve already talked about some of the emotional issues I have faced, especially in the self-confidence department. I was (and still am) somewhat shy and quiet in social gatherings until I get comfortable with the people around me, so even non-romantic socialization has always been a challenge.
Not so much when I was really little and didn’t even know I had CP; growing up with a loving single mom and a large extended family was like living in a bubble full of joy and contentment. As long as I was with my mom, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and many cousins, I was a happy, gregarious little boy.
That state of innocent bliss ended when I started going to school in Bogota, Colombia, sometime in 1967. I don’t have many memories of kindergarten at the private school I attended; the only thing that I recall was that we wore a garment that resembled a hospital gown (but with buttons on the front) over our own clothes. Boys wore blue garments, girls wore pink ones.
I, do, however, remember some details from my first three post-kindergarten years. First, I seem to have been home sick a lot. I was prone to catching respiratory illnesses such as influenza, bronchitis (which is quite painful and unpleasant), pneumonia, and the common cold. I also had the measles and other childhood ailments that made me miss many days of school.
Worse yet, even though several childhood psychologists had noted that I had above average intelligence, I couldn’t grasp arithmetical concepts easy. Adding and subtracting wasn’t a problem, really, but multiplication became my biggest intellectual hurdle for many years. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that I didn’t learn my “times tables” until 1975 and I was in a Special Education class back in Miami. Until then, no one, not even the strict Catholic nun who was my second and third grade math teacher in Colombia, could get me to understand that 5 x 5 = 25.
I also remember that I loathed penmanship class, both in Colombia and, after the spring of 1972, in Miami. It wasn’t that I didn’t think it was important to learn how to write in cursive. I was aware, even then, that cursive writing looks nicer and is quicker to do than print handwriting, but holding the pen just right was tiring, even painful at times.
My handwriting looked like a chicken grabbed a pen or pencil in its beak and scrawled on a perfectly good sheet of paper. And trust me, the sisters at El Nogal Catholic School in Bogota did not take my CP into account when they put red Fs on my penmanship assignments. They didn’t have Special Ed teachers in Colombia back then, and the nuns thought I was just lazy and unmotivated.
In addition, some of my classmates made fun of my involuntary movements and called me names. One boy in particular had a habit of sticking his foot in front of me as I was walking from one classroom to another or out on the recess field behind the school building. I managed to avoid tripping over the offending boy’s foot most of the time, but on several occasions he caught me unaware, so I fell to the ground and skinned my knees badly at least three or four times until one of the nuns caught the little bully and sent him to the principal’s office.
The physical scars of the tripping incident and others like it have healed. Most of the emotional ones have faded, too. But I have never forgotten them.