Looking beyond our subconscious stereotypes: living with cerebral palsy

Accepting yourself can be hard, but once you it's a lot easy to unapologetically be youself without doubt or worry.

Meg Howe
20th June 2022
Image: Meg Howe
In my early-teen years, after countless medical investigations that seemed to be getting nowhere, I was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. I spent much of the next half-a-decade not really thinking about it. In my mind, not much had really changed. I was still the creative, driven, intelligent and generous young woman I had always been. However, I knew that if the word got out about my medical diagnosis, all of the characteristics that I used to define myself would become overpowered by the negative stereotypes placed on me by uneducated and (unintentionally) ableist individuals. 

It is only now, at the age of twenty-one, that I feel I am able to talk about my experiences without having my own temperament second-guessed or devalued.

Anyone who knows me and is reading this, you probably had no idea - I became pretty good at hiding it. Or if you had noticed, and asked me about it, any inclination you had would have immediately been shot down - I always became pretty good at lying, too. In hindsight, I would love to have been accepting of this part of me. I wish I had felt comfortable enough to share this with others, but I don’t regret keeping it a secret for so long.

What I do regret is not having the confidence or knowledge to teach others about the condition; to teach them to look beyond the stereotypes that we, as a society, have about disabilities. 

The NHS website defines Cerebral Palsy as a “group of lifelong conditions that affect movement and coordination”. It comes in many forms and can span from mild (like myself, where only small tasks can be a challenge), to severe (someone who may need daily care and specialist assistance), but all forms are considered a disability. Most Cerebral Palsy is caused by damage to the developing brain, either during foetal development or birth. In my case, we’re not certain about the cause, but my Mum was unwell when she was pregnant with me, which could be an answer.

If you mention that you have brain damage to anyone, they immediately expect you to be in a wheelchair, talk with slurred speech or have a form of learning disability

Due to the lack of education in this country surrounding disabilities, if you mention that you have brain damage to anyone, they immediately expect you to be in a wheelchair, talk with slurred speech or have a form of learning disability. For some, this may be the case, but for myself none of these areas are affected. In somebody with Cerebral Palsy, the part of the brain that is ‘damaged’ is the cerebral cortex (the part of the brain that directs muscle movements). This means that the majority can be as intelligent as those without the condition. However, the connotations with brain damage are that there will be intellectual impairments, so I guess the point here is to look past these stereotypes and prove that living with Cerebral Palsy doesn’t limit as much of my life as you might be led to believe. 

The reason it’s taken me twenty-one years to open up about having Cerebral Palsy is that I didn’t want to live under false pretences or have anyone make uninformed opinions about what the condition is and how it uniquely impacts me. I didn’t want anyone to think differently of me or give me special treatment or consideration. I never wanted to be seen as a burden.

I will not let society box me up and claim that I’m something I’m not

But I have a voice, a strong one at that, and so I think it’s time I used it to show the world that I won’t be defined by my disability; I will not let society box me up and claim that I’m something I’m not. It’s time to look beyond those subconscious stereotypes and educate others the way I never was. It’s important to preface the following by noting that this is just my experience. As said, Cerebral Palsy is unique to each individual, and my experience certainly won’t be the same as anyone else's. But I truly believe that the way to combat stereotypes and misjudgements is through sharing personal stories and I hope that by sharing my story, I will give others the courage to share theirs, too.

I didn’t walk ‘properly’ as a child, nor do I still. A ‘normal person’ will walk heel first, toes second; they will have no issue placing both feet flat on the ground; nor will they have any issues flexing their toes upwards whilst their heels remain on the ground. However, my Cerebral Palsy means that I don’t walk like that. 

The growth of my right leg was slower than that on my left and the muscles in my right leg doesn’t work the way that everyone else's does. The discrepancy in leg length means when I put my right leg forward to step, the right heel doesn’t touch the ground. It’s painful for me to put my right foot flat on the ground and the tendon in my right ankle is too tight to flex my toes up whilst keeping my right heel firmly on the ground.  

I remember being in pain as a child. Pain from where the muscles in my right leg were being overworked. Pain from being forced to work in a way that my brain would not permit. Pain that my Mum or anyone else around me couldn’t understand. Because what 5-year-old wants to sit in the pram while her 3-year-old sister walks? Because what 7-year-old child can’t keep up with their friends running around the park? 

I feel like I missed out on a lot growing up. I didn’t participate in Sports Days and did everything I could to get out of doing P.E. at school, but these missed experiences don’t really bother me too much. What bothered me more than anything was that I couldn’t wear the same shoes that everyone else my age was wearing. It may sound trivial, but to me it really made a difference to the way I viewed myself compared to my peers.

Ever since my diagnosis, I’ve continued to impress myself and achieve so much more than I had ever imagined

Flip-flop, ballet pumps or any other strapless and open-toed shoes were a no-go! The awkward way that I walked meant that the shoe would never stay on my foot, and the concentration that it would take to ensure I was walking in the most ‘normal’ way possible was tiring and far too painful. It’s funny; I don’t actually remember the type of shoes I wore as a child and young teenager, but at one point I do remember having to wear an insole, which limited the shoe choice even further!

An operation in the spring of 2013 stunted the growth plates in my left knee so the one on the right could grow and catch up. By the time I was sixteen and had reached my full height, my walking improved. I didn’t do as much physiotherapy as was suggested to me - which in hindsight I have to say I regret - but I think it was me trying to be ‘normal’ and would rather have been out with my friends than doing exercises in the evening or at the weekend. Since the way I walked had improved, I was able to start wearing shoes I hadn’t ever dreamt of wearing before. The summer of 2016 was the first time I’d ever worn flip-flops, and now I wear sliders around the house. But it wasn’t until the History Society Summer Ball of 2022 that I wore open-toed heels for the first time! This was such a huge deal for me, although no one knew at the time, and despite having to be a little more conscious of the way I was walking, I felt confident and comfortable for the whole night! 

All of these accomplishments prove that having any physical disability doesn’t restrict the number of amazing things that any person can achieve! 

Currently I’m surrounded by the best friends I’ve ever had, and each one of them has made me feel accepted and encouraged by the process of this article. I’d like to thank all of them for responding to my openness and not making my fears of rejection or judgement a reality!

I’m in a place in my life that’s full of change. Ever since my diagnosis, I’ve continued to impress myself and achieve so much more than I had ever imagined. In the last 6 months alone, I’ve finished my degree and in the process wrote a First Class dissertation, as well as running a successful campaign in the NUSU Elections and was elected as Student Media Officer.

We must look beyond the stereotypes that society has placed upon disabilities and reevaluate the way we think about and perceive disabled people

I think that all of these accomplishments prove that having any physical disability doesn’t restrict the number of amazing things that any person can achieve! 

There are so many people set up to fail because society automatically assumes they are unable to live a ‘normal’ life as a result of their disabilities, when in fact, most are capable of so much more than we give them credit for. Therefore, we must look beyond the stereotypes that society has placed upon disabilities and reevaluate the way we think about and perceive disabled people. I hope that breaking down the barriers surrounding Cerebral Palsy can spark conversation and allow those with the condition to feel supported enough to disclose their own experiences the same way I have. 

I will never be defined by my disability and feel proud that I’ve found the bravery to speak so openly about it.

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AUTHOR: Meg Howe
Passionate History student and Educator

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