31: They Took My Picture

31: They Took My Picture

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Time to Thrive

They Took My Picture

Know me for my abilities, not my disability.

~Robert M. Hensel

At six years old, I saw myself as pretty typical. However, much of the world saw me as Tiny Tim. I was a scrawny kid with skinny arms and legs, pigtails in my hair and a smile that was waiting for the tooth fairy. Because of the cerebral palsy that had affected me since birth, I walked with crutches and wore leg braces, which weighed me down more than just physically. They were a tangible reminder that I was different than my peers. Wearing them made me feel as awkward as my unsteady gait.

I thought it was special when I was selected to be poster child for the county where I lived in New Jersey. At a time when I was often excluded from games of tag and climbing trees with friends, I saw this opportunity as a benefit of my disability. I was singled out, but for once in a way that I thought was positive. To my six-year-old mind, this was important stuff.

The day came for the first photo shoot. My new dress, freshly shampooed hair and big brown eyes all reflected the excitement bubbling inside. Standing on the designated mark, leaning on my canes, I smiled big into the camera as the photographer set up the shot in such a way that nobody could miss my braces.

They took my picture.

The meaning was lost on me at the time, but that image was put on donation cans all over town that year, in grocery stores, banks, and restaurants. The idea was that people should donate their spare change to raise money for cerebral palsy, and, to some extent, people should also feel sorry for me. Even at my young age, I took note of the stares, and the vibe some people had that my circumstances somehow made my life unbearable.

I am not sure I can adequately describe what it is like to be the object of someone’s pity. The look in their eyes is a mixture of sorrow and “I am glad I’m not you.” I’ve lived with it all of my life, and see it often in my day-to-day activities. When I can’t reach something on a shelf or struggle to open a heavy door, most people rush to help as they give me that look. Some are compassionate, some are insensitive, some simply don’t have a clue. But that look always leaves me feeling like I have inadvertently swallowed lemon juice.

As I got older, I met other people in high school and college who also had physical disabilities. Through conversations and shared experiences, I learned I could do many things because of my disability, not in spite of it. That realization resuscitated my soul.

Over time I fell in love with advocacy. Learning my rights and to use my voice made my confidence swell with each success. When I was able to speak to government officials about programs that would increase the quality of life for those affected by disability, I felt the satisfaction of Superman after he rescued Lois Lane.

One day, in 2007, I got an application inviting me to participate in the Ms. Wheelchair Kansas pageant. At first, I scoffed. I would describe myself in many ways, but beauty queen is not one of them. But as I read more about the program, I learned that the Ms. Wheelchair Kansas pageant is not a beauty contest. Instead it is a competition based on advocacy, achievement, communication and presentation to select the most accomplished and articulate spokeswoman for persons with disabilities.

Ever since I was young I have wanted to be a public speaker. Talking to various audiences about issues that challenge people with disabilities, as well as ways to empower and respect us, would enable me to do my small part to change negative perceptions. Because contestants in the Ms. Wheelchair Kansas pageant had to have a platform, write a speech, and communicate about disability awareness, I thought participating would be good practice for my future career. To my shock and amazement, I won.

One of the highlights of the year was traveling to Bethesda, Maryland for the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant. I think anyone who is affected by significant disability sometimes dreams of a world where there is no discrimination and everyone is given the respect they deserve. That was my overwhelmingly empowering experience at the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant.

Though I had decided previously I didn’t want the national crown because I didn’t think I could handle all the travel required, I wanted to get to know the twenty-six other state title holders, and to do my best to impress the judges. The women were incredible. All were wheelchair mobile and all had impressive stories to tell. Ms. Wheelchair Texas went to college on a wheelchair tennis scholarship. Ms. Wheelchair Virginia taught special education when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Ms. Wheelchair Illinois was part of a dance company, and Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts was a quadriplegic who had lost nearly fifty pounds by working out regularly at her local YMCA. As bonds were formed, we communicated about our common struggles, and on comedy night we continued to laugh about our disabilities. The power that I drew from that group will keep a light burning inside me for decades.

At last it was the night of the crowning ceremony. In a formal gown with my hair and make-up professionally styled, I felt like Cinderella, except my life had already changed. When the announcement was made that I was not one of the top five finalists, I thought I was done. Then the head judge said he had a special announcement. There was another award that year.

“They say wild flowers thrive in the Midwest,” he began. “One of them holds the title of Ms. Wheelchair Kansas.” I was so stunned that I could barely process what he said next. The judges were giving me the Bouquet Award, because they said I had “the uncanny ability to leave the judges with a little more joy than they had before I entered the room.” No award of its kind had ever been given before in the pageant’s thirty-five-year history.

When I regained my composure, the head judge asked me to join him on stage. When I did so he knelt down by my wheelchair and gave me a hug that encompassed all the joy and pride I was feeling. In that moment, I understood that no matter how other people looked at my life in the future, I would never feel pitiful again. I looked up and smiled big.

They took my picture.

~Lorraine Cannistra

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