Stumbling across the high school parking lot, I can only catch glimpses of my surroundings. Pink sky. Trees silhouetted on the horizon. Half-melted snow scattering the sidewalk. Cold, stiff air. Unlocked door. Less than ten minutes before class starts, I enter the English office, where my power chair is kept. For longer distances, I use a power chair because of arthritis and a muscle disease. Unplugging the charging cord and hoisting my backpack on the back of my chair, I sit down, relishing a moment of peace; I missed my bus this morning.
I turn my chair around, hearing footsteps approaching. I acknowledge a girl standing in the doorway. She glances at me, and then looks down at the floor, her fingers fidgeting with the zipper of her jacket. Her short blonde hair and bangs frame her face, her cheeks brightening with a shade of pink.
“Hi, I was wondering, um, if it is okay to ask... what is wrong with your legs?”
The words wrap around me like a snake, sculpting me into little more than a concoction of stiff joints and crooked feet. I am stone: unable to move, unsure of how to articulate the truth. Her perception of me is wedged between those of centuries of intellectuals: she sees me as a statue of despair and pity. If scholars like the famous Aristotle believed that a ‘deformed’ person was inhumane, how can she see my disability as something other than “wrong”?
My tongue chokes on my reply, forming a half-hearted apology of why I’m not normal. I repeat the doctor’s words, the ones that are scrawled as surgical scars on the back of my legs. The girl lifts her eyes from the ground, peering down at me, her lips pinched in a line of pained sympathy. I smile as her hushed “I’m sorry” and “wow you have overcome so much” slap me in the face.
I spent my childhood dreaming of running, imagining hills and races, sneakers and sweat. I let myself pretend that the hum of my power chair was the quiet padding of feet against pavement.
I never wished, though, that I didn’t have a disability. I want to defend myself against the assumption that my disability is a fault; instead, I consider this a part of my identity. Words, however, can not help but slip out of my mouth, only phantoms of the truth. I am trapped inside myself, a stone figurine in the world between wheelchairs and sneakers.
I think this now, as I watch the girl walk past me. I move the lever on my power chair to full speed. Varsity jackets strutting to class. Backpacks brimming with textbooks and folders. The typical high school hallway greets me, and this morning, without the usual banter of friends to distract me, I notice the smaller details. The wisp of romance hidden in the corner, bashful arms holding one another, the ghost of their kiss cooling my lips. A boy with his hair slicked back, tossing a tennis ball between his hands, a mischievous grin plastered on his face as he calls across the hall to his friend. I view the people around me without judgement, without thought, the words “what is wrong” still an echo in my ears.
From an early age, stereotypes are etched into our skin. Weak. Brave. Small. Quiet. I try to rewrite my own narrative, and the narratives of people with disabilities, yet I find that my words are still strewn with formulaic beliefs. My story is dependent not only on the way I tell it, but the audience’s interpretation. This belief that disability is wrong should not be blamed on an individual or a singular idea; we must work as a society to fix this.
Moving towards my jazz band class, I look in the glass to my side, watching as my mirage speeds along above spinning wheels. I try to imagine myself as a frail carving of a girl, composed of only scars and mistakes. Yet I am beautiful. I am strong.
In this moment, I am no longer built of stone, I am flesh and blood and bone. I will never be ‘normal’. The chaos in the hall continues, undisrupted. I swerve around feet as I speed around the corner. I am human.