Having a disability pushes a child to get to know themselves a lot faster than most children. A child with a disability is handed limitations that they don’t understand or often recognize in other kids, which leads to a lot of confusion, frustration and introspection surrounding identity. A child with a disability has to take the extra time to understand their body faster, to know what to do to when it doesn’t cooperate, and to know what to say to bystanders looking to lend a helping hand. It’s a lot to digest at a young age, and I was fortunate enough to have the most solid support system possible to help me through it. But when dealing with identity, it’s a personal journey, almost like when it’s too quiet and you think you hear a noise. You end up zoning in, listening extra closely to see if you did in fact hear something after all… Now imagine that as a dialogue within yourself. This is my story – identifying my disability.
As a young girl, I had a love-hate relationship with gym class. At six years old, it started as a place where I could learn about teamwork and how to lose with grace. But as time went on it became the place that I disliked the most. It’s where the bullying began, and where I started to question my self worth. But, it was also the first time I had to come face to face with my disability and accept it as part of who I was. It was there that I learned to stand alone, and face cerebral palsy head on, not just through my physical limitations, but my mental ones as well. The trials I faced during gym class all through school helped develop my voice. It forced me to learn to speak, to define my disability and set my own limitations.
Participating in gym class was something I worked ridiculously hard at. I couldn’t possibly understand why trying my best just didn’t seem to be on par with the best of my peers – It felt as though I was working on a puzzle and I could guess what the image would turn out to be, but I didn’t have enough pieces to complete it. Soccer was especially challenging. No matter how hard I kicked the ball, I couldn’t understand why it wouldn’t move the same way it did when the other kids hit it. As a disclaimer, I’m fully aware that not every child is going to excel at sports, but I’m sharing these past inner thoughts as a way to articulate that my juvenile brain didn’t even take my disability as a potential factor of why I might not be the next world cup winner.
As time went on, things got a bit tougher socially too. I started getting picked last for every activity and dreaded the moans and groans of other students as I joined their team. For the first time, I felt small. My parents always encouraged me to try my best, but I was – and my body was letting me down. I remember my gym teacher asking me to kick an empty net goal because everyone had to score at least once, and that was the only way she thought I could get the ball in the net.
Feeling defeated, I made my way to the bathroom to clean myself up. The second I realized no one else was there, I began to sing. I was always singing growing up, my family could never get me to stop. I was just belting out the last chorus of Ironic by Alanis Morissette, when a bathroom stall door swung open, and Mrs. Hutchinson, a jovial, motherly type, was standing in front of little me. I was very embarrassed, but only until she said, “Oh my goodness Rachael, you can sing!”
Her surprise confused me, as I knew how much I sang at home for my family, and at school when no one else was around.
“Come with me.”
We walked together hand in hand down the hallway. I felt Mrs. Hutchinson’s pace quicken as we reached the entrance of a classroom I’d never been in before. Without a word we went inside, and my eyes lit up as they the met the black and white keys of a Yamaha piano. Mrs. Hutchinson sat down and began to hit notes, gesturing for me to match them. She eventually joined me, and the two of us sang through a few scales before her hands stopped moving and her gaze met mine.
“Rachael, would you like to join the school choir?”
I never got to thank Mrs. Hutchinson for the impact she made on my life that day. Through music she gave me the chance to hear my own voice in a way I hadn’t before. For the first time, I felt able. For the first time, I belonged.