I have always had an internal pressure to be *actually impressive*. Not inspiring, not motivational. Nope, I have always wanted to be realized for talents unrelated to my physical ability – for someone to say, “Wow, that’s actually impressive.”
When I look back on my years in high school and college, I realize that this need to prove something stemmed from lower expectations from teachers and peers. Implicit bias against disabled people has always held my awareness. When an able-bodied person sees a person coming at them in a wheelchair, a switch turns on. Something about the way they engage with the person with a physical disability changes. Whether it’s talking down (literally and metaphorically), avoiding eye contact, or cracking a joke to try and make the situation less uncomfortable (which ALWAYS works the opposite way it should), there is a fundamental difference in the way people treat those with disabilities, including their accomplishments in the classroom.
When I was five years old, I was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type III. SMA is a rare, genetic, neuromuscular, and degenerative disease of various severities. For me, the use of my lower limbs is primarily affected. While I can walk around my house, I use a manual wheelchair to get around in the community.
Unlike other neuromuscular diseases, SMA doesn’t impact my cognitive or behavioral ability. However, I learned from a young age that the perception of my accomplishments was passed off as “inspiring” rather than true measures of motivation and work ethic.
It was as if, because I used a wheelchair to get around, I couldn’t possibly be expected to reach the honor roll or join a prestigious college. And if I did, then there must have been some way I had worked the system. Maybe I got extra time on a test, or perhaps I got in because I was a certain demographic of a student, a checkmark.