Because of My Disability, Not in Spite of It

Lorraine Cannistra is an author, speaker and wheelchair ballroom dancer who writes mostly about her personal experience with disability.The guest post here is an intimate look at her life, recalling the first moment she truly understood what she could accomplish when she focuses on what she can do.You can read more about her journey on her blog atwww.healthonwheels.wordpress.com or contact her at lorrainecannistra.com.  

lorraine_cannistra and Leah

 

Leah, my black Lab service dog, lies at my feet. She has just had breakfast and done her thing outside. After we cuddle for a bit, she sighs deeply and goes back to sleep.  We have been together long enough for me to know the drill.  She will wake every ten minutes or so to make sure all is well.  If she senses something wrong, she will take things as they come, do her best to fix it and then go back to sleep. Sometimes I tell myself I need to take “laid back” lessons from my dog.

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I took a deep breath and tried to wrap my mind around what I had just heard, in a moment that was both surreal and wonderful.  “Could you say that again?” I asked my coach through the phone.  I wanted to be sure I wasn’t just a young teenager who was dreaming.

“I just got word Lorraine,” he repeated. “You are one of 37 athletes that have been chosen from across the country to compete in the International Games for the Disabled. (What is now the Paralymics) You did it! Let it soak in for a minute.”

It was hard to describe what I was feeling, an overwhelming mixture of pride, excitement, relief.  But in that moment something else happened as well. My mindset shifted.  I understood, deep in my soul, that I had accomplished something huge because of my disability, not in spite of it. I knew that none of this would be happening if I had been born with the ability to break dance.

I had joined a sports team specifically for people with cerebral palsy almost four years previously. Being an awkward and painfully shy freshman at the time, I was used to being excluded.  Being part of that team meant that I met people with disabilities who were older than I was for the first time. Not only was I part of the group but they helped me to see a positive future.

Over time I excelled in sports and with the training of the head football coach at my high school, I was challenging international records in track. At every practice I pushed myself hard, being motivated by all the times in the past when I was expected to be content to sit on the sidelines and watch. Every lap I completed took away a bit of the sting of not being able to play tag or hopscotch. I knew I couldn’t walk. But I could race, and I was good at it. I started to concentrate on what I could do.

A few months later I went to college.  Coming from a big city, it was important to me to find a very small school that was completely accessible. In the days prior to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, finding a school that met that criteria was like searching for the wizard on the yellow brick road.  But in 1987 I started attending Emporia State University in Kansas, where I eventually earned a Bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in Creative Writing, as well as a Master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counseling.

Lorraine CannistraBrandon and Lorraine Dancing

It was in college that I found that writing helped me make sense out of the world. If something made me angry or upset, writing about it could get the negative emotion out of me. It was also in college that I fell in love with advocacy.  I found that when I use my voice to speak about programs that enhance the lives of people with disabilities, I feel understood in a profoundly positive way. Over the years I have provided testimony to senators, representatives and the governor. When those programs become reality, the high I feel always outweighs my desire to climb a tree.

In 2007 I had the honor of being crowned Ms. Wheelchair Kansas.  It was during that year that I started speaking to various groups about disability awareness and empowerment.  In doing so I discovered what I was born to do.

I have to be honest and say I have my share of difficult days, when I wish for a world where everyone is treated with the respect they deserve.  But when my reality is different, I try to do what my dog does.  When I sense something wrong I take things as they come, do my best to fix it and then go back to sleep.