Paisley and palsy

Demystifying Disability

Ariel Hayat /Staff

My life is a series of falling forward. Never backward, always forward. Always reaching for something a little closer to perfection.

Step, slosh, step, slosh. Creek. Step, slosh. My legs, beneath the knee, remain stationary. My feet, two 10.5-size bricks. Not clay and mortar, but skin and tendon, muscle and bone. Toe, heel. Up, down. Slosh, step. Slosh, step. My hips are a sashay across the sidewalk that becomes an unapologetic catwalk. I move, from side to side, swaying ever so slightly, as if I am drunk. But I am not drunk, tipsy or buzzed. I am sober, and I am aware. Slosh, step, slosh, step. My knees swing forward and inward, bowed like the arc of an upside-down smile. Slosh, step.

Sometimes people stare. Other times, they ask me if I’m all right or if I want to take the elevator.

Identity is tailor-made and itchy, and smells like grilled cheese. It’s the old coat in the closet that nobody wants to wear.

My identity makes people feel uncomfortable. Like a paisley coat, my identity doesn’t really match anything. My coat is cerebral palsy-paisley-patterned, to be exact.

I invite the questions about my paisley coat. How does it feel? Is your paisley coat like all other coats?

The questions are just white noise. Every now and then, though, they turn into stories. On a lonely Tuesday during my senior year in high school, a lunch lady asked about my gait. She said her niece had cerebral palsy and was on a breathing tube, and she started to tear up. I remember feeling awkward — things occur in spectrums, and why did I get lucky?

But that’s not to say there aren’t hiccups.

About a week ago, I was headed to my family’s annual Valentine’s Day party. It’s an ordeal, and the ordeal starts at noon. True to form, I had rolled out of bed at 10:30 a.m., a solid 60 minutes after my alarm went off. This particular alarm was titled “Get Up, Lazy Butt.” I clearly needed some help.

Anyway, I was late. And so I was running to the BART station to catch the next train to Fremont, about three and a half minutes behind where I needed to be. I was out of breath and sweating profusely. It was not cute or romantic.

I paused at the crosswalk and felt yellow bumps on the sidewalk beneath the soles of my sneakers. The pulsating orange crosswalk hand told me I had six seconds left … five … four … three. I was going for it. I ran into the crosswalk, looked up at an errant cloud above Shattuck Avenue, and bam! Smack dab on my knees. My skin made contact with the asphalt. The graceful debacle issued a collective noise of concern from the surrounding homeless folks. A bulky man with kind eyes and a backpack asked if I was OK. There was blood on my kneecaps, and little bits of street gravel on my palms. The light had turned green. There were cars waiting on my klutzy ass.

I couldn’t help but smile. I picked myself up and, with what dignity I had left, made it to the sidewalk. I turned to the worried group of homeless people. It’s all right, I said. I’m bouncy, you see. When you fall on a regular basis, you learn to spring back up.

I wouldn’t exchange my cerebral palsy-paisley-patterned coat for anything. Because of my disability, my mind is free. It floats above the world at night and twists and turns unanchored. In my mind, I am graceful. I am the prima ballerina and perform for the whole company to see. The audience is full. Butts occupy velvet seats. The lights dim, and the stage glows. I don’t need the markers. I don’t need the cues. I float, and I dance. All I see is an audience sporting paisley.

I have whole thoughts. In my mind, I am not confined to my body. I am an amoeba, a sponge, an amorphous shape that is capable of absorbing and doing anything. Because I am not confined by my disability. You might see boundaries, but I see the space in between. I see a blank canvas. Not a prison. Come walk in these shoes, and I promise you will be liberated.

Wear the coat. The cut is very flattering, and the color of that fabric really brings out your eyes. Take the coat off the hanger and put it on.

Just don’t let the zipper get caught on the fabric.

Jasmine Leiser writes the Monday blog on ability and its intersection with the student experience. You can contact her at [email protected].