I've been living with a condition called cerebral palsy for nearly 31 years now. It's a disease most commonly resulting from a birth injury and it can't be passed on genetically, which explains why my twin sister doesn't have a disability. The life I've lived to this point has certainly been a full one, filled with its share of ups and downs, and as much as people give me credit for being an inspiration and maintaining a determined attitude, even I'll admit growing up was tough. See I grew up a sports fan, but going through school I often times found myself on the sidelines in gym class and at recess. I simply could not participate the way I wanted to, and sometimes, my peers and teachers just thought it wasn't plain safe to play.
Little did I know that years later, having cerebral palsy would lead to other challenges. The physical pain and distress, constant physiotherapy, surgeries and rehabilitation programs represented the most obvious hurdles, while being able to fit in socially, find employment, meet a woman, and even now living independently represent the kind of ongoing obstacles that most able-bodied people may never totally understand.
As human beings, regardless of ability level, we're all predisposed to looking for the path of least resistance in life. When you do have an added, lifelong challenges however, searching for those paths becomes all the more crucial.
Over the years I've found my way around, and learned how to accelerate the completion of tasks and activities that used to take me a lot longer to complete, either with or without help, and yet there were so many missed opportunities along the way. Social programs that may have helped me as a kid that my parents didn't know about, strategies for interacting socially that my peers with disabilities seemed better at implementing, and of course being able to advocate for myself and for others, or at least being able to build a platform for the disability community that can change our future as a collective group.
That last part is the key, because proving your independence, your level of intelligence, your business acumen and your ability to stand neck and neck alongside the average able-bodied majority is a full time job that doesn't end until the day you die.
Sometimes I sit around and wonder what my life would have been like had I been able to utilize the knowledge and life experience I have now, and been able to apply it to my life as a young teen. One thing I always wish I pursued more was the opportunity to take legal action and be compensated as a result of my diagnosis, as many people with cerebral palsy (often times via their parents) both in the U.S. and Canada have successfully filed lawsuits against medical professionals for wrong doings that led them to a life with cerebral palsy.
The fact is that for a big chunk of my life, I grew up with two sisters in a single-parent household. My mother gave us the best she could and I can't say we missed out on much, but there were times where mom, nor anyone else for that matter, could do anything to help me with my unique challenges, and I can't help but think that having a nice sum of money in the bank to help me out throughout my whole life could have made all the difference.
I'm not a vicious or vengeful person by any means, and it's too late for me to file a birth injury lawsuit at my age anyway, but it might not be too late for you or your child to pursue justice if you're living with cerebral palsy or another lifelong birth injury.
That's why when I was recently presented with the opportunity to interview Jonathan C. Reiter, a New York injury lawyer with plenty of experience dealing with birth injury cases, I couldn't pass it up. So in the spirit of helping youth with cerebral palsy (and their parents) explore the possibility of getting a much needed head start in life, I'll leave you with some of the important tidbits of legal information I learned in spending an hour with him. By no means is this article a complete guide to any shot you or your parents may have at making a case in court, but I hope it inspires you to think critically about your options. So without further ado, here's what I learned from Jonathan.
Parents! Watch Your Child's Development Closely
This tip is strictly for moms and dads dealing with an infant/baby. It goes without saying children are supposed to be able to lift their own head up, crawl and walk as they grow. If any of these milestones lag behind, or if the walking appears to be abnormal that may be a problem. To watch for this is something any responsible parent would do, but what most parents may not know is that it's never too early to consult a lawyer. Jonathan suggests that the sooner parents seek advice the better.
"Parents should get an evaluation done, because that way they will be able to set their mind to rest, because it affects the parents as well. The child isn't doing well, the child is having problems. Then it becomes something in parents mind's where they ask themselves, "What did I do wrong", which 99.9% of the time it shouldn't be in their mind, but that doesn't mean it's not there. It really helps to get closure, to have somebody independent look at the records, an expert that a lawyer can retain."
Collecting and Understanding Scientific Evidence Is Key
The health of a newborn is judged based on the APGAR scoring system, which evaluates a child's appearance, pulse, grimace, activity and respiration. Jonathan told me that in a court case, these five scores would most certainly be reviewed, as well as the acidity level of the child's blood at birth, along with a long list of other potential scientific pieces of evidence unique to an individual case. It goes without saying, neither you nor your parents should be doing the data collection or interpretation it on your own. Find professional help. Birth injury cases in both the United States and Canada can be worth many millions of dollars.
Your/Your Child's Cerebral Palsy Doesn't Have To Be Severe For You To Have A Case
As I've experienced firsthand, and as Jonathan echoed during our chat, even a mild birth injury can have a significant impact on your life. It affects one's ability to fit in, find employment, and just generally enjoy life. Part of the reason my parents never pursued legal action is because I can walk on my own, am cognitively at the same level as my peers and business partners, and am generally independent. But as Jonathan put it, "even when a child's obstacle in life is something as simple as being able to run to first base during recess, it can have a profound impact on their quality of life."
Take Action Before You/Your Child Turns 18
As I mentioned in the introduction, it's a little too late for someone my age to pursue any legal action or receive compensation as it relates to living with cerebral palsy myself. Jonathan let me know that in most states, a child is considered an adult at 18. Once they are legally an adult, making a claim in court is no longer acceptable. Make sure you read up on statutes of limitations in your state to find out if you/your child can still explore the possibility of pursuing a case.
Aside from the above points, the big picture message I came to understand through my conversation with Jonathan is that the whole point of pursuing legal action is to be able to set yourself or your child up to have the best quality of life they possibly can. A team of qualified life care planners, doctors, a good attorney, and the people that care about you the most can work together to plan out everything you'll need for your entire life, and no matter how minuscule or major those needs may be, you owe it to yourself and your children to explore your options.
No matter what anyone tells you in life, if there's one thing I've learned from having cerebral palsy for the last 30 years, it's that nobody will advocate for yourself with a greater passion and resolve than you! So get informed and do the best you can, whether that means fighting for what you deserve in a court room, finding a career, starting a family, becoming an activist for change, or even just giving it your best effort to make it to first base, whether you have to crawl, walk, run or wheel!