"Walking With Cerebral Palsy"
Red and blue lights danced on the roof of the 4-door sedan. My heart seized up. A moment ago, I had looked over my shoulder and found myself staring into a pair of high-beam headlights. I had thought the driver was trying to turn into the parking lot where I was walking and that I was in his way.
So, I had been moving off to the side to give him plenty of room to get by me. That was when I heard the shout. I’m not sure if the driver had yelled out his window or if he had barked through the loudspeaker. But the shout was loud and startling, and when I looked over my shoulder again, I saw the lights on the roof of the car.
This has happened several times before, and I knew right away what it was about. The cop climbed out of his car, looked at me and said something I didn’t hear. I explained that I don’t hear very well and asked him to repeat himself.
“Have you been drinking?” he said.
I told him that I had not been drinking.
He spread his arms in this dramatic, astonished way and said, “Then how come you can’t walk straight?”
I get very emotional when writing about things like this. I just had to wipe the tears out of my eyes to see what I’m doing here.
It was Samir Knego’s article in the Spring 2022 issue of Breath & Shadow that inspired me to write this piece. The struggle is real, and those of us with disabilities know it too well.
When I talk about things like this, people think I’m full of shit. But they haven’t been in our shoes. It’s like there’s two different worlds, the one we see and the one they see. We experience these hardships, these frustrations, these humiliations. They turn a blind eye on it and deny that it happens as often as it does.
The ignorance is out there and it is loud and crippling. From the people who patronize us because we’re so goddamn special, to the people who block our access on the misconception that we’re already drunk. Like Knego, I often find myself wanting to exploit inaccessibility to the nondisabled. But mostly, I want to appear strong and capable. I don’t like it when people assume I need help where I don’t, but at the same time, I wish things were readily there when I need them.
When you’re detained by the police, you feel alone. You look around for someone who can help. The parking lot we were in was on the corner of a fairly busy intersection. There were numerous vehicles going by. At one point, a guy pulled into the parking lot and got out of his car. I’m not sure who it was, but I think it might have been a neighbor of mine.
I think the guy asked if everything was okay. The cop told him to leave or he would arrest him for interfering. The guy got back in his car and drove away.
“Then how come you can’t walk straight?” the cop had asked. Do you know what it’s like to be asked a question like that, in such a manner? I’m suddenly forced to recognize what I look like to people and I begin feeling self-conscious.
I told him that I have cerebral palsy and explained that it was the result of having gotten sick when I was eighteen months old.
“Have you been using drugs?” he asked.
Did he even hear what I just said? I told him that, no, I had not been using drugs.
“Do you have any weapons or drugs on you?”
“No,” I said.
He asked me for identification. I gave him my state ID card. He looked it over and again asked me if I had weapons or drugs on me. Again, I said, no.
“I’m going to pat you down.”
I’m lucky to be on my feet and not in a wheelchair. But because I’m not in a wheelchair, when you see me coming, you might think, “That guy is intoxicated.” Anytime I’m on my way into a bar, my chest gets tight because I can’t shake the feeling that another bouncer is going to stick his arm in my path and tell me, “You can’t go in.”
A couple years ago, I was at an uncle’s party. I was in the kitchen enjoying alcoholic drinks like a number of other people. Some woman, who closely resembled the grouchy school bus drivers I’ve known throughout my childhood, decided to single me out of all those other people. She walked up, pointed at me and asked my aunt, “Is he okay?”
I didn’t hear what my aunt said, or if she replied at all. But I started talking, trying to assure this woman that I was fine. She looked at me like she was pissed off, then yelled, “I’m getting out of here!” and hurried off for the door.
I was humiliated. I was having a good time at that party. My good time came crashing down because this woman thought I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing and she needed to bring it to the attention of my guardians.
I vow that I will never again let someone treat me that way. You will never again be able to talk to me like I’m a child. You will never again be able to take hold of my arm, guide me to a chair and insist I sit down. I will fight you. I will shame and humiliate you.
Life is already challenging enough for me, let me enjoy the things that I get to enjoy.
I just said “Okay” when the cop told me he was going to pat me down, but my mind was in a whirl. I held my hands up and turned around. He did the pat down, but all he found was my wallet and keys.
When he didn’t find weapons or drugs, he decided that the next thing to do was breathalyze me. He went to his car, got the device and brought it to me. He told me to blow into the tube and yelled at me when I wasn’t doing it right. But finally, he admitted that I wasn’t drunk and took the device away.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
I told him I was going to the store.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
I told him I was going to the store to get cigarettes.
He pointed at my chest and asked, “Is that your shirt?”
I told him it was.
“What’s that on your shirt?” he asked.
I looked down at my shirt. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I was wearing a Metallica T-shirt. I shrugged and said, “I don’t know.”
“You walk to the store every day?” he asked.
At that time in my life, I was walking to the store almost daily. So, I told him, yes, I walk to the store every day.
“How come you don’t drive?” he asked.
So, I’m forced to tell him about my third disability, which is that I’m visually impaired. This is why the cop’s name and badge number aren’t included in this article. I was unable to read that information.
“You can’t drive at all?” he asked.
I told him that I can’t drive at all.
“You walk to the store every day?” he asked again.
I think my first experience with this kind of discrimination was when I was 21, I went into a local store for beer. The guy at the cash register refused to sell to me because he believed I was drunk.
Another time, I was buying a shotgun at Walmart. My dad was with me and he was helping me with the forms because the print on these forms is so small. The FFL dealer couldn’t understand why my dad was helping me and he thought it was suspicious behavior.
He asked some questions, including why I was swaying from side to side. My dad explained it all to him, but the dealer didn’t believe him and he wasn’t going to sell me the shotgun. Then Linda came along at the right moment. Linda is a close friend of our family’s and she worked at Walmart. She convinced the dealer that we were okay and he agreed to sell me the shotgun. He also apologized.
More recently, I was at the Dollar General--a stone’s throw from my house. Like several times before, I was having trouble paying. There was something wrong with their card machine and it wasn’t recognizing my pin number.
I was telling the cashier how the manager had fixed the machine the times before and that she needed to call the manager over to do it again. But the cashier thought I was mentally challenged and wouldn’t listen to me. She kept telling me to try again, assuming that I was entering the wrong pin number.
After so many failed attempts, she finally asked me if someone had driven me to the store. I’m an idiot for not flatly asking her, “Why?”. Instead, I said, “My brother.”
Know what she did? She made a beeline for the door, to get my guardian and bring him in to help get this stuff paid for. My brother and I are twins, and we’re both deaf. He does not have cerebral palsy, because he didn’t get sick like I did, and his eyes are better than mine. But we’re both deaf.
I went after the cashier, saying “He’s deaf too.” She wasn’t even listening to me. She just kept on going. I wanted her to stop. I wanted to tell her that she had to deal with me. That my brother isn’t my caretaker.
But in situations like this, I’m rattled and stupid, and I don’t think straight.
I followed her out the door. She went to this pickup truck that had someone sitting behind the wheel. I don’t know why she assumed this was my brother, but I should’ve left her there to embarrass herself. But me, no. I’m too polite. I told her that wasn’t my brother and pointed her to his car, which was farther down the parking lot, and she headed that way.
She went around his car and started talking to him through the window on the driver’s side, saying something about how I was putting in the wrong pin number and that he needed to come in the store.
I leaned in through the passenger window and told him that he had to come in the store. I should’ve just told the cashier to fuck off, gotten in the car and left without buying anything.
We all went into the store. The cashier had me run my card through the machine again, and then she told my brother to enter my pin number. My brother doesn’t know my pin number. I entered the pin number myself, and it didn’t work.
Again, I told the cashier that she needed to get the manager to fix the machine. While I was talking, the manager appeared at my side. She pressed some buttons on the machine. The next time I slid my card through and entered my pin number, it worked.
I was so embarrassed about the whole thing. After paying, I wanted to leave the store as quickly as possible.
The cop was asking me the same questions over and over again. He believed I was lying to him and he was trying to get me to slip up. Why was I in this situation at all? Because I have a disability that effects my balance and makes it hard for me to walk straight.
“Is that your shirt? You walk to the store every day? Where do you live? Just down the road? You walk to the store every day?”
I was getting mad. Why should I have to stand there and answer these questions? I guess my anger was coming across, because he pulled his gun out of its holster and held it pointed down at the ground.
“I’m taking you in,” he said.
The back door of the store came open and Bob stepped outside to drop some trash in the bin. Bob looked toward us and he’s like, “What’s going on?”
The cop went to Bob. I couldn’t really hear what they were saying, but I could see Bob nodding and I knew he was telling the cop that he sees me in the store all the time. Bob pointed down the road in the direction of my house, and I knew he was telling the cop that I live just down the road.
Bob went back in the store and the cop came back to me. When he gave me back my ID card, I thought I was free to go. I started walking away and he yelled, “Get back here!”
I went back to him, and he was saying something about how I’m not in trouble and some other stuff that I didn’t hear. When he was done talking, I double checked to make sure I was free to go.
My sense of independence is all fucked up now. I can’t walk anywhere without thinking a cop is going to roll up and detain me. Nowadays, I usually ask for a ride, but there are times when I can’t get a ride and decide to walk.
It's a reality. It happens all the time. I see stories in the news that are similar to mine. There’s a movement called “I’m Not Drunk, I Have Cerebral Palsy”. I really need to get the T-shirt.
All of this, it tells me, and other people with disabilities, that we’re not allowed to do what “normal” people can do free of being hassled. That we need to be monitored and coddled. That the rights and privileges nondisabled people get to enjoy are not for us. That we should not be out without our guardians.
I don’t have or need a guardian.
Rob Darnell has work published in different magazines and anthologies. He loves music and sports. He enjoys deer hunting and fishing, and on his bucket list is the desire to go out in a sailboat. His website is RobDarnell.com.