Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Wheelchair Celebrity

Raf_s7973A man held the door for me last weekend as I was leaving the local pub. ‘Hold on, I’m helping this Polish guy’ he explained to the person he was talking on his cellphone. I didn’t know who he was, I’ve never seen him before. As he was hanging up he explained he read my editorial in The Alligator. I’ve never  written for that newspaper, a few years ago they wrote about me. I did have an opinion piece printed in the Gainesville Sun more recently, no pictures though. Yet, a random person recognized me on the street.  Quite a bit has happened to me since I moved to America. I’ve had a number of local media write about either my fight to get back in law school or my struggles with immigration. Some highlighted my independence, my decision to move here from Poland by myself in search for a better life, the hardships and sacrifices my family made when I was growing up. It was attractive I guess to feature me, because it went against a lot of things they’ve assumed about people with Cerebral Palsy this advanced and people in wheelchairs in general. I was young, foreign, motivated and funny. Quite frankly I don’t see a whole lot of people with advanced disabilities in Gainesville. There was only one other person in a wheelchair at the law school when I was there. Now, once in a while I see one or two undergrads in a chair if I travel through campus. It’s mostly older people that are me visible, honestly, barely managing moving those big hospital style things in the poorer districts of town. The Gainesville Sun wrote two pieces about me, The Alligator dedicated their spread to my story, while InSite called me one of Gainesville’s 18 most interesting people. As the articles were coming out about a year apart from each other it gave me some sort of visibility and recognition. People were stopping me on the street although not too often to tell me that they’ve read ‘my article’ and too ask how I was doing. At that point I understood what it must be like to be Paris Hilton.  At times I have a person on a bus turn to me to say they remember reading about me five years ago and they were curious how that ended.

Some people told me that reading about me inspired them to go to law school. I’ve had a first year law student come up to me to say hi like he was star struck. He explained that not only he went to law school after he read about me and my struggles, but he decided on UF to meet me. It was very sweet and moving, but also very strange. And I was never vain enough to seek that kind of recognition. I think people should be known for what they do and the things they accomplish, not simply for being something. I also think that when people actually meet me they’re bound to be disappointed as I could never live up to the image in their heads. They expect someone who is very serious, focused, analytical, dare I say cerebral, while privately I like to be silly, sarcastic, I  joke a lot and I like to have fun. And I don’t want to be charged with a responsibility for other people’s life choices. I don’t care to be a celebrity, I just want to do my job. I do recognize however that America responds best to human interest stories. That I have to be out there so I can deliver a more positive message of what is like to be my age and have a disability, to help the non profit causes I believe in, to give Cerebral Palsy a human face. If there’s anything I can do to help, motivate or inspire I will do that. Because I’m not ashamed of who I am, what I have and where I come from. But never for a minute do I think that this recognition is real, earned and deserved.

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