It was the first truly chilly day we’d had in Oxford, and I was taking my favorite winter coat on its first outing of the season.
I heard, “Excuse me,” as I was walking to class. Looking over my shoulder, I saw a guy straddling a bike, wearing a navy blue puffer jacket and an earnest smile.
I offered a tentative hello. Usually members of the male species don’t speak to me unless forced to, so I was in uncharted territory here. What came next, though, would not, in my limited experience, count as a pickup line.
“I noticed you were having difficulty walking,” the guy told me.
It’s true. My gait has been variously described as “herky-jerky,” “lopsided” and “like a drunk person’s” – all accurate descriptors. I didn’t learn how to walk until I was 3 years old, and I’d long since crossed “professional runway walker” off my list of potential careers.
I was trying to formulate a proper response to, “I noticed you were having difficulty walking,” when the guy, abandoning his bike to walk alongside me, asked a follow-up question. “Do you mind if I ask why?”
Given that we were walking past Alumni Hall and that I needed to be in class in Hiestand in 20 minutes, I decided not to give him the long answer, which is that I was born with an extremely rare neurological condition that rendered me unable to feel pain, temperature and touch. The condition, whose name consists of four long medical-ese words that sound like gibberish to the general public, is estimated to affect about 50 people in the word. My symptoms are many, but the ones relevant to this conversation are that I have a horrid sense of balance and am not able to perceive where my limbs are in space as well as most people can.
I offered the short version of this explanation to my newfound walking companion. As he and I passed Irvin Hall, I tried to illuminate the situation a little more. Finally, he stopped walking and turned to me.
“You’re probably wondering why I stopped you.”
“I just wanted to let you know that God loves healing people, and I’d love to pray for Him to cure you, if you’d allow me,” he explained.
This is a common line people with disabilities hear. But this was my first time confronting the issue with a total stranger, so I wasn’t sure exactly how to respond.
My reply wound up being something like, “Thanks, but I’m happy the way I am.”
I haven’t stopped thinking about our conversation, though, so here’s what I would have told him, if I hadn’t been quite as preoccupied with getting to class and with thoughts of the nap I was going to take afterwards:
Thank you. Really. I appreciate your concern. Yes, I have a weird way of walking, and yes, sometimes, living with a disability can make things a little harder. But I’m OK. I haven’t always been – our mutual friend God knows that – but I’ve come to be happy with who I am, drunkard’s gait and all.
I’m not a victim of anything – except maybe an incredibly unhealthy sleep schedule, but I hear that’s typical among college students – and I’m definitely not a victim of my disability.
I see my disability as part of who I am, but it’s not all of me, just as my brown eyes or hatred of mathematics don’t comprise my entire being.
Some of the best friends I’ve made here at Miami are also members of the disability community, and some of the most meaningful extracurricular work I get to do here is as a founding member and co-president of Miami’s Students with Disabilities Advisory Council.
Oh, and having a disability didn’t hurt when it came to applying for college scholarships, either.
The doctors don’t know what causes my particular disability. That means there isn’t a cure for it, and there may never be.
Quite frankly, that’s fine by me. This life is the only one I’ve ever known, and this somewhat misshapen body is the one I’ve always lived in.
I’ve come to accept and to embrace that.
To the guy who stopped me that day, I’m sorry I didn’t catch your name. (Here’s where I don’t mind playing the disability card: I’m literally deaf.) But thanks for the conversation, for the handshake we ended it with and for finally giving me the courage to make my debut on the Miami Student’s opinion page.
Thanks for the offer, but I’m okay. If you really want to pray for me, put in a good word with God about my test next week.