The first time I remember writing about my specific experiences as a disabled person was in my senior year of high school. In a response to an assignment, I wrote an essay titled “To Ride a Bike,” in which I described the moment in my childhood when I first felt excluded from my peers. In the essay, I explained how I was born congenitally disabled, a “quadruple amputee,” in medical terms, and yet I didn’t feel any different than my non-disabled family and friends. Contrary to what some may have assumed, I was a very active baby and young child. I loved playing outside—in the grass, in the dirt, and even in the snow, for hours. I would get caught up in my imagination.
In the essay, I described a significant moment from my childhood that signified, for me, the first time I felt different from others, in a negative way. Learning to ride a bike is a rite of passage for children, and I discussed how I had interacted with my peers on a what I felt was a level playing field, until all the other kids were riding bikes. I recounted the moment that I saw them riding off, leaving me behind, as a metaphor for what I would now call my socialization as an “other.” It was a good essay, and I got a high grade. Unbeknownst to me, one of my teachers entered the essay into a contest for young writers, sponsored by what was then called the Buckeye Boys Ranch, a mental health services facility.
I won the contest and was expected to attend a ceremony, to receive my reward. I was horrified. I felt violated that my private essay had been publicized, without my consent, and I resented the idea of being put on public display, as a triumphant “overcomer.” I imagined that everyone.
e there would honor my achievements with the subtext of pitying me. But I went to the awards ceremony, because I had no choice. My mother and teachers and everyone else who knew about it were so proud of me, and I couldn’t let them down. I let my mom buy me a new dress, I styled my own hair, and I sucked up my embarrassment. Lines from my personal essay were read aloud at the ceremony, and I felt so exposed. I don’t remember much else about the event, except that it was hosted by Bruce Jenner. I recall my mom’s boyfriend, Ralph, gossiping about how, according to the press, Jenner had gotten plastic surgery. When we rode the elevator with Jenner, Ralph kept trying to scope out any incriminating plastic surgery marks on his face in the elevator. It is even more amusing to me now, considering that “Bruce” has completely transitioned into “Caitlyn” Jenner. A photograph was taken of me, between Bruce Jenner, holding my trophy award, and some other man whom I don’t remember. I’m smiling, despite my dubious feelings at the time.
I revised and expanded on the essay, and it became part of the materials I submitted for my college applications. Today, I am a professor of art history and disability studies. I write about the representation of disabled bodies in art, as well as about my experiences as a woman in a disabled body. I am proud of my accomplishments, as well as my body. Further, I have my own bike, a three-wheeled bike that I pedal with my hands. I do not “overcome” my disabled body to ride the bike, rather, I use it, especially my strong arms, to move it on the bike trail near my apartment.
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