I have cerebral palsy, but I’ll never let it limit my life

Just because I don’t ‘look’ disabled doesn’t mean I’m not dealing with a condition

I’ve had cerebral palsy since birth, and it’ll still be there when I’m old. It’s not a major part of my life by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s become a key factor in the way I navigate life, university, and just existing on a day to day basis. No, I’m not in a wheelchair, but that doesn’t mean that my disability is any less valid or important than anyone who is.

Usually caused by damage to the brain around birth, cerebral palsy affects my muscles and coordination. This means that I often struggle to walk long distances, walk slowly, and am not unknown to fall, or perform spontaneous tests to see if gravity still works (spoiler alert: it does). There is no known cure for cerebral palsy, so it is a lifelong condition and something that I’ll never truly be able to ignore. It’s true that I’m lucky in that the ways in which my cerebral palsy impacts me are relatively mild, but each comes with its own unique set of challenges to navigate.

Firstly, I don’t “look” disabled, which can equally be a blessing and a curse. I can pass as an “able-bodied” person easily, where no one really notices my disability unless it’s specifically pointed out. I can do the things that everyone else does, but am often met with raised eyebrows and confused stares the second I dare not to offer my seat on the train, or take the lift up one floor when everyone else has taken the stairs.

In each of these situations, I’d be putting myself at risk by ignoring my disability and acting as though I had the ability to stand on trains without falling, for example, or that I’d be able to manage the few flights of stairs to the next floor of the library with a backpack and a coffee. It’s commonly accepted that if you don’t carry a walking stick or any visible indicators of a disability, you’re being rude or ignorant by using seats and lifts that seem to be designated for “real disabled people”, not that you could be part of that group yourself.

I’m thankful that I am able to get about my day to day life, particularly at university, with minimal outside help. I have a prearranged agreement with some of my lecturers to leave classes early when my next lecture is on the opposite side of campus, for example, and for the most part am able to access lifts and step-free entrances when needed. It doesn’t, however, translate to other students. If I had a pound coin for every time I’d been asked why I used the postgraduates’ lift to get to my lecture theatre on the fifth floor rather than traipsing upstairs like everyone else had to, I’d be able to pay for the replacement of the stairs in the building with escalators, and that way no-one would have to spend their time climbing the stairs if they didn’t feel up to it.

Despite this, there are still many aspects to university life that I’ve yet to figure out. I’d struggle to carry a drink across a bar to my table, never mind have to pick up a drink, cross the dance floor, and dance without accidentally spilling it. Wearing trainers to the club is considered a fashion statement rather than a practical choice because there’s no way you’d be able to make it out the house in a pair of high heels. There’s always the chance that I’ll be asked if I’m drunk because of the way I walk, despite only having had a couple of lemonades.

My disability doesn’t serve to limit what I can do, but in fact makes me more determined to take every opportunity offered to me. I travelled to Strasbourg in France to represent Scotland in a European Parliament conference, have volunteered at Glasgow Pride with Girlguiding, and hope to take a year abroad working in France as part of my degree. I can do everything anyone else can do and more, it just takes a bit more forward planning.

For the most part, everyone I’ve met at uni has been very understanding, and I can’t fault the Disability Services for what they’ve put in place for me. However, I can’t help but feel as though I shouldn’t have to defend my right to accessible ways to get around campus to everyone I meet. If I had a wheelchair, walking stick, or visible way to identify my disability, it wouldn’t have to be such an issue. Maybe, when my lack of gravitational pull tests show up positive, it’ll be more obvious then.