My name is Michael Jackson (yeah, yeah, I've heard all those jokes before). I am 18-years-old and I am in a wheelchair.
I am also a mind reader. Right now, you're probably wondering how and when I was paralyzed, right?
You would be wrong.
I was born on April 9, 1994 at 32 weeks gestation (full term is 40 weeks) with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy. Spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy is caused by a bleed in the brain, typically at birth, which affects all four limbs, making them spastic, or tight. Cerebral palsy can also affect speech and breathing, as in my case.
But my diagnosis is not what defines me. This September, I started college and am majoring in psychology. Between volunteering, (I am a finalist for the Betty Jane Humanitarian Award for my work with Starlight Children's Foundation and this is a not-so-subtle plug to Vote For Michael), hanging out with friends, and the unceasing list of homework to complete and exams to study for, I'm just like any other 18-year-old.
Well, in my mind anyway.
It's hard to feel like a normal 18-year-old when other people don't look at me that way.
Imagine this: you're at your favorite store, you've picked out your items, and you're walking to the checkout line. You sigh, because the line is long today, and you have somewhere to be. Don't you hate that? You tap your feet, wondering what could be taking so long, when you see a woman standing next to a full cart and holding a baby.
"That's an adorable baby," you think to yourself. Suddenly, you're not in a hurry anymore.
"Aw, how old is he?" you ask the woman.
"Eighteen," she replies. "Ask him yourself."
What? Oh, sorry. I seem to have accidently mixed that story up with my own. Confused? Let me explain.
For me and many of my physically disabled friends, this situation is a reality more often than not. Here's a not-so-hypothetical scenario of this in action. The other day, my mom and I were having lunch when someone she hadn't seen for a long time came up to our table. They chatted for a while -- the usual "how's life" type of stuff. The lady eventually looked at me, turned to my mom and said, "Is this Michael? He's so big! How old is he now?" My mom simply replied to the comment by telling the woman that I'm 18 and in college.
It doesn't stop there, either. Not only do people talk down, they talk slower. And louder. Let me tell you right now, I have supersonic hearing. If you're going to talk louder to anyone, go start a conversation with my parents.
Adding to the list of the worst assumptions a person can make is that since I'm in a wheelchair, I just sit at home. A person will often think that I can't go to his or her house or go out to eat. That is so far from the truth. Don't worry, I have a modified van and I'm not agoraphobic.
Heck, I even participate in sports: I've tried archery and sailing, I've been kayaking for the last three years, I've been downhill skiing since I was six, and I've even played wheelchair soccer for two years. Most of all, I love water skiing. Oh, I also tried golf once, but we don't need to talk about that...
I can do anything anyone else can do, just in a different way.
So when you meet me, come say "hi." Get to know me -- just like you would any other new friend. Ask me questions. Ask me about my interests, and ask me about my disability. Get informed. It shows you care and makes you a more understanding, open, and educated person. Not everyone lives the same life you do, so come learn about mine. I won't bite. I won't even run over your feet with my power chair.