This month I had the absolute privilege of speaking at Alexian Brothers hospital. My 8th grade social worker thought of me when she was planning this "Victim to Victor" conference. It was one of my best speaking engagements yet. Here is the speech I gave:
I’m different. I have always been the different one, ‘The girl in the wheelchair”, or “The kid who cannot walk or talk.’ I grew up with these phrases surrounding me like flower petals surrounding their beautiful green stem. They were always used and helped create a sense of identity. Let me explain. Since people would call me the girl in the wheelchair, I would always ask myself, how can I be great at being the kid in the wheelchair? That is where courage came in. It was essential that I had courage to be different.
The courage to be different. Almost sounds like a paradox especially in our society. Women are encouraged to be super women, not because they necessarily want to but it is encouraged by society. Men are encouraged to be the best in their places of work, again, this may not be their personal goal, it may be society’s goal for them. Since society can put them in a box, it is easy to encourage them because others have had similar goals. With me, I had the privilege of designing my own goals, and I could define personal expectations, and others would just help me because they saw the courage in me. This has been a tremendous gift from God throughout my life. I’ll give you an example.
In high school, I decided to try out for the speech team. That’s right, the speech team. I will admit this was crazy. The girl who cannot talk tries out for speech team. Frankly, I loved it. I loved that I was crazy and courageous enough to even consider it. My courageousness got me on that speech team for the next three years. I placed at three tournaments. Needless to say, I defied expectations. I’m sure the teachers were talking about me. That was a good thing, because it gave me an identity other than just the girl in the wheelchair. Now, it was the girl in the wheelchair who was on speech team. You see what I did? I had an identity because of my physical appearance and then decided to link that identity to something else. I didn’t realize I was doing this at the time; I just wanted to be involved in high school.
When my involvement with the speech team was a success, I decided to volunteer at Onward House, which is a learning center on the south side of Chicago for underprivileged children. A bunch of high schoolers would take a bus to the city and help kids with their homework. It was a wonderful experience. So, now I was the kid in the wheelchair who was on the speech team and volunteered at Onward House. Pretty good. See what I was naturally doing? I’m creating other identities for myself besides the girl in the wheelchair. With that, the high school staff asked me to participate in the variety show. They saw me as somebody who could effectively contribute to the theater community. I had the courage to seek out more identities than just what my body presented me with.
At graduation, during the principal’s speech he stated that, some students were going to college against insurmountable odds. I did not know who he was talking about. My father explained it to me. He was talking about you. Here’s the thing; my parents never said things like, “you have insurmountable challenges”, or,”you have such a hard life”. It was always,” we will find a way” or, “you can do it”. So, when people identified me as the one with insurmountable odds, I didn’t get it. I have never looked at my disability as a challenge; I just looked at it as something to work with. I continued to have that mentality throughout college.
When I got to college, I was thrilled and filled with hope, excitement, and wonder. When I met someone, I put my best foot forward. I saw myself as independent and capable. I took those two attributes to the extreme. I manage eight to ten personal assistants per semester, went to classes on my own and had about 9 hours to myself each day. I absolutely loved it. Surprisingly, these tasks did not require as much courage as going through sorority recruitment. Let’s back up a bit before I tell you about my journey through sorority recruitment.
Even though high school presented itself with many opportunities and good times, the social aspect was very difficult. My fellow students were so scared to be friends with someone so different. They did not understand. I don’t think they were mean spirited, I think they were afraid of associating themselves with the kid who was different. They didn’t understand how much fun being different could be. So, I got ignored all the time. I remember at senior night which was the party after graduation, I had nobody to spend time with. I ended up calling my parents and going home. I tried so hard to teach them about disabilities and they just never caught on, so I moved on.
During the transition process, I made a very conscientious choice to go to a school where the population of students with disabilities was low. Asking about the reason behind it is a fair question. I was so used to and comfortable with my identity as the girl in the wheelchair that I wanted to hold on to that throughout this incredible change in my life.
When I arrived at orientation at Elmhurst College, it was as if the storm stopped and I found the rainbow. They literally could not wait to get to know me. They wanted to hang out, text me, it was incredible. They understood that there was much more to me than the wheelchair. Everyone wanted to help, it astonished me. I had made some friends but I could see that we were naturally drifting apart. One girl wanted to play sports; the other girl committed herself to a dance team, and so on. Over the summer, I had thought of joining a sorority. So, I signed up for recruitment.
I rushed two sororities. For the purposes of this presentation, I will not share their names because I’m not about pointing fingers. So, I am rushing Alpha Alpha and Beta Beta. The first night goes great. However, the second night I don’t get invited back to Beta Beta. I thought “That’s fine; I’ll just pour my heart and soul into Alpha Alpha”. Unfortunately, they did not want me either. Obviously, I was heartbroken. It was then that I started second guessing everything. I thought Elmhurst College was a mistake. I thought it was high school all over again. My mother really had to push me through that time. As we all know, time helps us heal.
This story has a happy ending. A few months later, a sorority named Phi Mu came to campus. Women from headquarters who had been Phi Mu in other areas of the country wanted to start a chapter on campus. I knew I had to try. My parents were appropriately hesitant and claimed that the sorority world was not ready for me. I knew this was a possibility; however I do not want to live with regrets. I went to the recruitment events and I absolutely loved these women. I have to mention that these women were alumna of Phi Mu so they were a bit older and could see my potential as a member of Phi Mu. Also, the staff at Elmhurst College had gotten to know me and they understood that I could commit to an organization like this. Due to those women believing in me and Phi Mu truly being the right fit, I have been a member of this organization for four years. I won the sisterhood award my first year and recently got rewarded for having one of the top ten highest GPA’s in my chapter. It will be extremely difficult to leave Phi Mu this May, however, I plan on joining an alumni chapter after I graduate. This took so much courage but it worked. I don’t know why people choose to believe and support me, I am humbled by this.
I am not just in a sorority on campus. I have been involved in student government, Catholic Students Association, three honor societies including, Omicron Delta Kappa for leadership, Gamma Sigma Alpha, the Greek academic national honor society, and Lambda Pi Eta, the honor society for communication students. As anyone would tell you, I am at most of the college’s events. I attend everything from academic lectures about LGBT issues to the annual homecoming dance. Let’s go back to me being the girl in the wheelchair. Well, if someone described the girl in the wheelchair, it would be difficult because I do so much. So, I can happily report that to my peers that I am just Hannah. This is a wonderful feeling and a great accomplishment in an abstract way. Most, if not all people are known by their names, all my life it’s been split in the middle, fifty fifty, I was fighting a battle with the human eye, I won. I got people to see with their minds. I created an identity outside of the wheelchair.
I have fought this battle for years. My efforts have paid off in various ways in college but this week I took a leap of faith and it was rewarded. I love Elmhurst College. It is the greatest place to learn and the people of Elmhurst College are absolutely phenomenal. So, I was crazy enough to go into the president’s office and ask for a job. I’m not joking. I’m proud to say that he was enthusiastic about it and informed me that he would make some calls and see what he could do. So, even though I cannot feed myself dinner, I can go in to the president’s office and ask for a job.
I have been discussing my high school and college career throughout this speech. It’s time to get more personal. I need help feeding myself, going to the restroom, brushing my hair, washing my face, and anything that is purely a physical task. I have eight to ten personal care attendants that come in and out while I live independently in a residence hall. They come when I need them which is when I wake-up, have my meals, and go to bed. Before I moved out and lived independently, I had to learn how to direct my care. I learned that at a very special place.
Every summer, I go to a place called Camp Courage. It is a camp for people with disabilities. That was my first experience of directing my personal care, a crucial element to being independent. My parents did not train the counselors like they did with respite workers at home or my one on one assistant at school. The camp counselors did have general training but I was used to my parents training anyone that worked with me. I will admit that I was a little hesitant. I was used to having my own caregiver that was fully trained. Well, ten minutes after my parents left, I had made two new friends and loved my counselors. During the first year, I swam with a counselor in the pool without my parents even being close by. I rode horses with people who barely knew me or my body. It was an exhilarating feeling! I had not experienced anything of this nature without my family. I felt so free. Camp Courage made me truly realize that I could be independent. Today, I have honed the skill of directing my care balancing, courtesy and kindness with authority.
The courage to be different is scary however; it can be a lifelong thrill. Notice how I said, lifelong thrill, not the thrill of a lifetime. In my 21 years, I have chosen to embrace my identity, as different as it may be. I do not want to blend in, I want to stand out. I mean, in every single group picture, people can point me out within two seconds. I will admit when the girl in the wheelchair rolled into Jeanie Walsh’s office, she had some days where she wanted to be normal. Now, I can say that, the woman in the wheelchair wants to stand out in as many ways as possible.
I was presented with flowers and received a standing ovation after I completed my speech. I felt like Miss America!
I cannot wait to do another speech.