It was 3:35 p.m. on a Thursday in November when I began to see in shades.
I was 15, and my mother took me to the optometrist for what was a routine appointment. After checking in, I walked over to the reception area.
Waiting to be seen was a young man in a wheelchair who had no arms and no legs. He looked to be about my age, accompanied by his slightly more-mature-looking friend. The pair was laughing about something funny that happened on the car ride over and discussing plans to meet up with classmates for dinner and a movie.
It struck me that this young person looked genuinely happy, genuinely “normal,” someone whose visit to the optometrist seemed just as routine as my own.
My 15-year-old self was agonizingly hung up on appearance. I ruminated on what other people thought of me — who they thought I was, how “successful” or “popular” I might be in their eyes based on how I dressed, did my hair, chose my shoes and how well I could disguise the limping, uneven pronation that comes with cerebral palsy.
In my 15-year-old mind, success was a calculation. Success was a summation — equal parts image and attitude. The less I stood out, the better. I wanted to be part of the crowd.
In my 15-year-old heart, there was comfort in conformity. If I dressed and talked and thought like all the popular pinheads, maybe I would walk like them, too. Maybe their good health and ableness would rub off on me like their perfume that clouded the locker room.
But I was also miserable, exhausted, tired of calculating where I fit into this social equation.
In my eyes and at my high school, this young man’s friend would have been popular. His Nikes were red, his designer jeans had the correct amount of sag, and his snapback cap had the LA logo on it. He wore a varsity track sweatshirt.
In other words, this friend possessed speed.
In my mind’s eye, I had a momentary vision. I pictured him bouncing — revving up like a car on a racetrack. His racetrack was made of red rubber, with boundaries of white lines. Varsity Track Boy sailed over the long jumps and flew through the relays. Varsity Track Boy was fast.
For several moments, I struggled to understand the friendship between these two people, in terms I thought of as binary — fast versus slow, able-bodied versus disabled, popular versus unpopular, the right clothes versus no arms or legs.
It then dawned on my small 15-year-old mind that these perceived differences affected the way I thought of my wheelchair-using peer. We were both persons with disabilities, both 15 or 16, both waiting for a routine eye exam.
My mother, who had accompanied me to this appointment, saw the young man and started to tear up. She discreetly opened her magazine and whispered to me, “Wow, it sure looks like those friends over there are laughing at something really funny. It sure looks like they are having fun.”
In my 15-year-old eyes, this wheelchair user was brave. He had friends, and he had dinner plans. Most of all, his smile was darn fast. He was unapologetically himself. Maybe I could be, too.
That day, in November, I slowed my calculations. And I began to see in shades.
I began to see the world as a kaleidoscope of beings — each of cast in different molds, textures, shapes and hues.
If we all viewed the world through a kaleidoscope and could see people without the murky haze of our assumptions, without the haze, we would see only shades — the shades that color us human.
Jasmine Leiser writes the Monday blog on ability and its intersection with the student experience. You can contact her at [email protected].