A letter to my able-bodied partner.

Dear able-bodied partner,

At your predecessor’s apartment, I always took my shoes off as soon as I walked in. It wasn’t a house rule, but an effort to speed things along. My orthotics make shoe removal a complex procedure involving clasps, straps, and — much less sexy — a foam pad that looks like a Pringle. (If you don’t flinch at the Pringle, you’re a keeper.) It’s a clumsy detour to take once you’re making out so, as usual, I thought ahead.


That’s a habit cerebral palsy forced me to form.

The ultimate mood-setter. Photo via iStock.

One night, I forgot until we were already in her room. She waited on the bed while I sat on the floor to unlace my sneakers, and I’d just pulled the left Pringle free when I heard, "Um … do you need help?"

We need to talk about that question, and all the ones like it that I imagine you have.

What if you say the wrong thing? Do you acknowledge my disability right away or not at all? Should you just ask? Is that weird? How much are you responsible for? And where is it OK to touch me? Should you even want to? What does it mean if you do? Or if you don’t?

Do you need help? Thought so.

There are expectations for couples like us. Namely, that I will be grateful, that you will protect me, and — most importantly — that we will "overcome disability" together because that is what love looks like. No one says as much outright, but they reinforce it in smaller, sneakier ways. I can guarantee, for example, that you will earn praise for being with me. The truly bold (usually strangers or well-meaning relatives) will actually tell you how "nice" it is that you’re dating "someone like her." But more often, your friend will get too honest one night, admit "I don’t know if I could do that," and then ask you "what it’s like."

Someone will admit, "I don't know if I could do that." Photo via iStock.

Your panicked questions, the constant pressure, and those backhanded compliments all imply that my disability is a problem I need you to solve. That’s kind of the only language we have for when able-bodied and disabled people get together. And I, for one, am pretty bored of it. So let me offer an alternative:

I don’t need you to save me. I need you to see me.

Notice what I did not say just now. I didn’t ask you to "see me, not my disability" or to "see past cerebral palsy."

Lots of people are on the "see past" bandwagon, and I understand why. Being disabled can feel like not even having a shot at independence, connection, or being taken seriously, so of course there’s an impulse to distance yourself. That’s what happens when the world caters to somebody else. But personally, I don’t want you to separate cerebral palsy from who I am. Because (you ready for this?) it is who I am. I don’t even know how it’s possible to "see past" something so fully baked into my experience. Instead, I need you to work a little harder and understand disability as part of my value rather than a caveat on it.

What does that look like? The best answer I have is that it looks like letting go. Instead of putting my disability in a vice grip, accept that it takes up space. Don’t try to defeat it; that is neither possible nor your job. Reconsider the assumption that I don’t want it and that you shouldn’t either. Because if you want me, you want it, too. There is no me without it. The fact is that vilifying cerebral palsy doesn’t make it count less. So acknowledge that it matters, and that’s not a bad thing.

Instead of putting my disability in a vice grip, accept that it takes up space. Don’t try to defeat it.

On a practical level: Maybe don’t ask if I need help with something I’ve been doing without you for 27 years. Trust that if I want help, I will say so. I’ll tell you right now: You will need to carry the drinks to our table, offer your arm when the stairs have no railing, and hold my hand through at least one major medical event. If you want to be the hero, there’s how. Otherwise, though, back off and listen. Give my body the room and time it needs. (It’s been through some things.) Find a better compliment than "you’re not like most disabled people." When you tell your friends, resist the urge to clarify that I can walk. And most of all (this is the hard one), let me fail.

No one likes to see disabled people struggle. I think it’s just too much, like watching a turtle get stuck on its back.

But when you respect someone, you let them make mistakes in front of you.

Photo via iStock.

You let them try things you’re not sure will work — or that you’re sure won’t. You let them drop the defenses, screw up, and speak honestly. And that, more than any kind of help, is what I need from you.

That, to me, is what love looks like. Respect.

I don’t want to take my shoes off first thing anymore. I don’t want to apologize for my body or downplay its uniqueness. I don’t want to worry about whether or not you are afraid. I want to be all of myself. And I don’t want you to "love me anyway."

I want you to love me because.

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On an old episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in July 1992, Oprah put her audience through a social experiment that puts racism in a new light. Despite being nearly two decades old, it's as relevant today as ever.

She split the audience members into two groups based on their eye color. Those with brown eyes were given preferential treatment by getting to cut the line and given refreshments while they waited to be seated. Those with blue eyes were made to put on a green collar and wait in a crowd for two hours.

Staff were instructed to be extra polite to brown-eyed people and to discriminate against blue-eyed people. Her guest for that day's show was diversity expert Jane Elliott, who helped set up the experiment and played along, explaining that brown-eyed people were smarter than blue-eyed people.

Watch the video to see how this experiment plays out.

Oprah's Social Experiment on Her Audience www.youtube.com

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Take Dr. Jackie Sanderlin, for example, who's worked in the education system for over 25 years, and as a teacher for seven. Entering the profession, she didn't anticipate how much influence a student's home life could affect her classroom, including "students who lived in foster homes" and "lacked parental support."

Dr. Jackie Sanderlin, who's worked in the education system for over 25 years.

Valerie Anglemyer, a middle school teacher with more than 13 years of experience, says it can be difficult to create engaging course work that's applicable to the challenges students face. "I think that sometimes, teachers don't know where to begin. Teachers are always looking for ways to make learning in their classrooms more relevant."

So what resources do teachers turn to in an increasingly fractured world? "Joining a professional learning network that supports and challenges thinking is one of the most impactful things that a teacher can do to support their own learning," Anglemyer says.

Valerie Anglemyer, a middle school teacher with more than 13 years of experience.

A new program for teachers that offers this network along with other resources is the WE Teachers Program, an initiative developed by Walgreens in partnership with ME to WE and Mental Health America. WE Teachers provides tools and resources, at no cost to teachers, looking for guidance around the social issues related to poverty, youth violence, mental health, bullying, and diversity and inclusion. Through online modules and trainings as well as a digital community, these resources help them address the critical issues their students face.

Jessica Mauritzen, a high school Spanish teacher, credits a network of support for providing her with new opportunities to enrich the learning experience for her students. "This past year was a year of awakening for me and through support… I realized that I was able to teach in a way that built up our community, our school, and our students, and supported them to become young leaders," she says.

With the new WE Teachers program, teachers can learn to identify the tough issues affecting their students, secure the tools needed to address them in a supportive manner, and help students become more socially-conscious, compassionate, and engaged citizens.

It's a potentially life-saving experience for students, and in turn, "a great gift for teachers," says Dr. Sanderlin.

"I wish I had the WE Teachers program when I was a teacher because it provides the online training and resources teachers need to begin to grapple with these critical social issues that plague our students every day," she adds.

In addition to the WE Teachers curriculum, the program features a WE Teachers Award to honor educators who go above and beyond in their classrooms. At least 500 teachers will be recognized and each will receive a $500 Walgreens gift card, which is the average amount teachers spend out-of-pocket on supplies annually. Teachers can be nominated or apply themselves. To learn more about the awards and how to nominate an amazing teacher, or sign up for access to the teacher resources available through WE Teachers, visit walgreens.com/metowe.

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