I believe everything happens for a reason and through this logic I had to be born with spina bifida in order to have the life I am living now.
From the time that I was born, I was brought up as being told I was no different than anyone else. My parents were the driving force behind this belief. Even though I had a “disability”, didn’t mean that I was dis – abled. Because of this mentality, at least for the majority of my life, I have not felt disabled.
Now, I can’t say that I never felt insecure about myself because as a younger kid, I did have insecurities. However, during my early school years I felt like I was included. From kindergarten until grade 8, I never felt like an outsider. I was always able to make friends and fit in with the kids my age. There were the occasional times where other kids made fun of or someone pointed and laughed at me but I felt like I was able to shake it off fairly easily.
If I had to say, my biggest insecurity was the leg braces that I have had to wear in order to walk. I will admit that from kindergarten to grade 7, I always wore jeans to hide them. I guess in my mind I felt that if I wanted to fit in, I couldn’t let people see that I had to wear them. I believe that it was a good thing that I went through this phase of insecurity. It helped me to understand that it really didn’t matter that I had to wear leg braces. Once people saw them for the first time, they didn’t care that I wore them. When I started grade 8, I had finally become more comfortable with myself and felt a sense of empowerment to show off my leg braces.
My elementary school teachers were also very accommodating, and were really a big part of why I eventually became confident in myself. They definitely made me feel like I was part of the class but at the same time were always challenging me to strive above and beyond. For that matter, I was always a strong student academically and was also a part of many school clubs including student council and school wide charitable organizations. There were times, mainly in gym class, where activities had to be adapted for me just because I wasn’t able to get around as easily as all my friends. However, this didn’t deter me. In fact I always attempted to do as much as I could at the same level as my peers, before I asked to have something adapted for me.
If elementary school was a time where I had insecurities and learned how to overcome them, high school was a time where I really hit my stride. Again, it was my friends and the teachers I had in my life who helped me find self-assurance.
In particular, there were two gym teachers who stood out; they always challenged me to be better. Mr. Barrett and Mr. McArthur changed how I looked at myself. Their message to me was to try as hard as I could in everything I did. To at least make an effort towards something is better than not having attempted at all. Because of them, I started taking limitations off myself. I participated in every activity and every sport that was in the curriculum. Gym went from being a class that I did just about average in, to a class that ended up being some of my strongest marks in high school and a class that I always looked forward to.
Because I have spina bifida, I was offered the opportunity to take part in a youth conference in Ottawa for teens with disabilities - I was one of only 50 teens from across Canada to attend. It was a week long and a great experience where I met some awesome people.
At the same time that I started high school, I also began playing sledge hockey. For years before, I had taken part in swimming lessons every week, so I had well developed cardiovascular strength and endurance. When I got into sledge hockey I was a natural. I began the sport at 14 years old, and by 16 I had improved to the point where I was invited to try out for the Canadian National Sledge Hockey Team.
I didn’t make the team that year, but I became determined to make it when I had the chance again. The following year, at age 17, I made the 17 man national team roster. I had limited ice time as a rookie but it taught me a valuable lesson in working hard. After that season, it took me 4 more seasons to crack the roster again. In that time I played for two different club teams in Hamilton and then Mississauga, as well as the Ontario Provincial sledge hockey team and a junior national team that won gold in one world junior tournament. While playing for these teams, I bulked up and worked extensively on my mental game. When I tried out again at 21, I was an easy shoe in for defense on the National team. We enjoyed many successes that year including winning gold at the World Sledge Hockey Challenge. Since then I’ve had some concussion issues but have overcome them by taking some time off from the game to heal.
Sledge hockey has really done a lot for me. I have met so many friends because of the sport. But I have also met so many inspiring people who have had to overcome obstacles in their lives in order to get to where they are. Sledge hockey also has given me life skills that I may have not otherwise learned. Through sledge I have learned to strive for more in everything I do in life. But most of all, the game has given me the confidence to be who I am. I realized that even though I fit in, I can be different or put more aptly, “unique”. I have become a stronger person in all aspects of my life because of the time that I have spent playing this game, and will continue to learn more about myself for years to come.
I have also had the opportunity to give public speeches to various groups in the past few years. I talk about sledge hockey and what it has done for me in my life. In fact, I have become so confident in myself, that I enjoy standing in front of large crowds to talk to them about my story.
So all in all, I’m glad I was born a penguin. I call myself a penguin because with my spina bifida, it has given me a waddle like a penguin. Humour like this is what I have also come by through my 23 years. I am able to laugh at myself because I have confidence in who I am. I realize I am unique and that that’s what sets me apart. I don’t have to conform to societal values or ideals. I can be who I am and be happy with that.
So to anyone who may read this, regardless of whether you’re disabled or not, you are unique. You may feel that you have the short end of the stick at some point in your life, but remember that you have a unique light that needs to be shone upon the world. I believe that everyone goes through what they do, in order to learn and grow. Looking back, I know for sure I went through my insecurities so that I could become who I am today.