Michelle was born with cerebral palsy and growing up she never saw herself as different. Then she went to a mainstream college and everything changed. People treated her differently and it really knocked her confidence. Rather than let it beat her, it motivated her to change things and she’s been raising awareness ever since. For cerebral palsy awareness month, she shares her ‘dos and don’ts of disability’.
I grew up going to a specialist school so everyone around me was disabled from nursery up until I was 18. Then I went to a mainstream college and that was a big culture shock. I’d never seen myself as ‘different’ – I was just me – but college completely changed my outlook on everything. People treated me differently and it really knocked my confidence.
Until then I hadn’t realised that being disabled can make you so segregated – you could tell that certain people just didn’t want to talk to you, they didn’t want to get to know you. People would either make mean comments or be overly nice because they felt sorry for me and I felt like I was fighting a battle every day. I just wanted to be treated like everyone else.
I’ve never disliked anything about myself but going to college made me realise that not everyone is going to be accepting and you do need to work harder just to prove that you’re a ‘normal’ person.
I think a lot of the time it’s because people just don’t understand. If they have grown up around disability or known someone who’s disabled, it’s not surprising. Up until recently, you’ve never really seen disabled people in the media so, when someone sees someone who’s a bit different from them, they’re not going to know how to act or what to say.
A lot of the girls I went to college with said they’d never known someone who’s disabled. All they had was this made up idea that disabled people are all the same. They’ve got these preconceived ideas and then they’ve never met anyone who’s disabled to prove that idea wrong.
My experiences at college completely changed my outlook and made me determined to change things. People need to be educated, people need to see disabled people in the media more. Then being around disabled people won’t be a big deal, because it will just be what they’re used to seeing every day. It becomes the norm. In the meantime, here are a few of my dos and don’ts.
Do talk to me
I’m perfectly capable of speaking for myself but people speak to the person I’m with instead of me – even doctors. I’m sitting right here, you should have enough respect to talk to me instead of talking about me. Then, when I answer, they still don’t speak to me and it’s so frustrating because I’ve just answered you, you can see that I’m perfectly capable of talking to you but you carry on ignoring me anyway.
Don’t talk down to me
People talk down to you or act like you’re stupid. You’ll be out somewhere and people will go “Aw are you okay?” like I’m a child. No. I’m 28. I don’t need you to speak to me like I’m stupid. When people are patronising and treating you like you’re stupid, that can be just as damaging on your self-esteem.
Do take my word for it if I say I don’t need help
People often go “Do you want help?” and I say, “No I’m alright thanks” and then they just take over and do it anyway, not listening to what I’ve said. Sometimes, they don’t even ask, they just do it.
And definitely don’t push my wheelchair without asking
Some people will just push my wheelchair. I’ll be out somewhere and someone will go “Oh I’ll push you” and I’m like “No I don’t need you to do that”. You’d never pick someone up and move them around.
Don’t assume we’re all the same
A lot of people think if they know someone with cerebral palsy, I’m going to be exactly the same. And some people are like “Well you can’t have cerebral palsy because you can do this or you don’t do that.” I know best. Not every form of cerebral palsy is the same.
Do see beyond disability
In the media, people either don’t show disabled people at all or when they do, it’s solely focused on that. Yes, I’m disabled, but I am more than that. I’m a person first. Cerebral palsy doesn’t come before me as a person.
We’re just ordinary people, we don’t want to be treated any differently. We might do things differently or have to adapt, but we’re just human.
For more dos and don’ts, watch Michelle’s film.