Almost all of us have had a parent or guardian utter the words, “Just wait until you get older; you will understand.” As a teenager with Cerebral Palsy in a single parent household, I thought I would never understand why my mother made me do things that, as she would say, “will increase your independence as a person with a disability.” I can say with the utmost certainty that there were times I hated my mother for all the things she made me do. But any person who knows me well would tell you I am 150% a mama’s boy. I would not be the person I am today without being loved, supported, protected, and pushed by my mom.
When I say I was pushed, my life from age 6 to 25 was an ongoing independent living and vocational assessment. “Experts” would tell my mom things like, “Your son will never make friends, have a job, or live independently. What if he gets hurt physically or emotionally?” Until Kindergarten, my mom bought into that mindset; she would do everything for me and make sure I was provided for and protected at all times. Providing that level of care day in, day out is exhausting.
I will never forget the morning everything changed. We were going through the before-school routine and my mom was rushing around to get me ready and on the bus. Her boyfriend at the time said, “Why don’t you let him do that himself?” My mom looked at him and said nothing; that next weekend, my clothes were picked out and set on my bedroom floor and I was told to get dressed. My mom shut the door and walked away. After what my mom says seemed like forever, I emerged from my bedroom fully dressed. I was forced to find my own way. This process of finding my own way was applied to several tasks that were difficult or “impossible” for me to do throughout my life, like: cooking, tying my shoes, putting on a coat and winter gloves, buttoning a dress shirt, cutting food with a knife, and doing household chores like vacuuming and laundry. In the moment, I hated learning those skills, but my mom took what others thought was a risk and gave me the space to fail and ultimately learn how to do things. When I would ask why I had to learn to do these things on my own, my mom would say, “Do you want a girlfriend some day? Women love a man who can do their chores well. You may not be able to do everything a man without a disability can do, but the things you can do you will be able to do better than anyone.” This “risk” my mom took paid off. I am now happily married and I was even able to make a small business in college out of charging my dorm mates a small fee to learn how to do their own laundry through my expert training.
In teaching me all of these independent living skills, my mom learned to apply the “find your own way” approach to employment and social experiences. Instead of shielding me from adversity, failure, and heartbreak, she encouraged me to try jobs, go to parties, date, and go on road trips. Of course I tried jobs that were not a good fit for me. I got in trouble at parties and was pulled over in a car that was going too fast. I even got left at my senior year homecoming because my date, “just could not see herself really dating a guy in a wheelchair.” For all these negative experiences, I have had great jobs, epic parties, great girlfriends, and road trip vacations that will be etched in my mind forever. My mom supported me every step of the way. I am now 34 years old and my mom and I have a relationship that my friends say is “extremely open and honest.” Our relationship has evolved in that way because after every experience, my mom and I would discuss how things went and what I learned (yes, we talked about the tough topics too.) While I hated these conversations sometimes, it was helping me advocate for myself and evaluate my life goals. The best learning takes place through experience and reflection.
If you are a parent or guardian, I encourage you to create opportunities for your youth or young adult to find their own way. Taking risks and failing is a part of experiencing life. Start with baby steps and grow from there. If you are a youth or young adult, understand that for your family members, letting you be independent and take risks is not easy. Respect the rules they make for you and look at every experience you have as an opportunity to learn and build trust with the people you love. But never forget to advocate for yourself and find your own way.
Everett Deibler, Learning Specialist, Accessibility and Special Programs, Lehigh Carbon Community College
Everett Deibler is currently a Learning Specialist at Lehigh Carbon Community College (LCCC), where he coordinates college-wide accessibility efforts and supports the SEED Program, which is the college’s inclusive higher education initiative. Before joining LCCC, Everett spent the last decade supporting thousands of youth and young adults in exploring their leadership, employment, and independent living goals with various organizations across Pennsylvania, including the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR), LVCIL, and the Pennsylvania Youth Leadership Network.