Erin Kelly reflects on the power of opportunity in celebration of Disability Employment Awareness Month.
I remember when I was just a quiet little girl in the corner. I wasn’t keen on working out math problems, counting the change in my cheap Snoopy wallet or pointing to continents on a map. My head was down so much that the world could parade by and I’d miss it.
The worst part wasn’t that I had my head down—the bad part was I didn’t see anything wrong with constantly having my head down. I didn’t see a real challenge in my second grade class, so I didn’t see a reason to care—about my schoolwork or anything else.
I eventually got to a point where I realized it wasn’t OK to let people think of me in a certain way just because I was in a wheelchair. I’d gotten to a place in my life where I knew I wanted to be something.
I didn’t care what that “something” was at the time, but I had a growing urge to write. I wasn’t out to impress anyone, nor was I looking to make a proclamation of any sort. I just wanted someone to take note of something other than my cerebral palsy, and I began to believe that desire was nothing more than a distant dream.
It was at that point that I turned to my parents and asked, “Why do I always have to prove myself?”
I was only six or seven years old, but that question didn’t just come out of the blue. I became very aware that people were talking in hushed voices around me and looking at me a certain way—a way in which I wasn’t necessarily happy about. However, I knew this came with the territory. I knew I wasn’t going to completely get away from that stigma—but at the same time—I grew weary of the doubt and underlying negativity that surrounded me.
Little did I know, that particular moment I shared with my parents would turn out to be one of the most important moments I’d ever have. The lesson within that moment and the experiences that led to it have carried over into my career.
I’m forever grateful for what they’ve brought to my life so far as well as what they’ve yet to bring. When it sunk in that I was one of an estimated 80 million disabled individuals around the world, that’s when I really started to think about my future. I found myself asking, ‘Do I want to be a “vegetable”—as some say—for the rest of my life, or do I want to give writing a shot and run the risk of failing?’
Not only that, but I was floored by the fact I had the opportunity to contribute to the nearly 15.8 percent of the disabled community that held a job. It was a personal revolution of sorts. I was in college when I saw firsthand that the odds of getting rejected as a writer were much higher than actually finding success in the literary world. That was also the time when the winds of change truly began to blow.
The stories and poems I’d written for my classes prompted my professors to pull me aside and ask,
“Erin, have you ever considered writing as a career?”
Truth be told, I had. It was all I thought about. I just didn’t know how to get from Point A to Point B. I think I’d grown so accustomed to rejection in one form or another that I figured I had nothing to lose. However, I was even more surprised when I actually started getting work—much less the fact my work was being received in the positive way that it was.
Writing was so much more than “a job” to me at that point. It’s always meant more to me than just throwing a bunch of words down on a piece of paper—but then, it was a responsibility, as it still is now. I have a responsibility to inform and hopefully entertain every person who reads the words I write.
That’s something I don’t take lightly, because I’ve earned that right—as a disabled individual and as a writer. I think it mirrors the notion that there’s tremendous value in opportunity.
When you give someone with a disability an opportunity, you breathe life into their soul. You inadvertently take all the emphasis and weight off their disability and put it in the places where they have a chance to shine.
In fact, President Obama recently addressed this very notion in his annual proclamation to celebrate Disability Employment Month:
“Americans with disabilities lead thriving businesses, teach our children and serve our Nation. For too long, workers with disabilities were measured by what people thought they could not do, depriving our Nation and economy of the full talents and contributions of millions of Americans.”
I think that speaks to the will of the human spirit in a way that only the heart can. On a personal level, it makes me want to reach out to every published writer who’s ever had a hand on the pulse of my career.
For much of my childhood, I tried to get out of the shadow of my cerebral palsy. In truth, I shouldn’t have been so eager to escape it—because it’s given me my livelihood. It just goes to show that if you’re never given a chance, you never have a fair shot at life.