by Aaron James Preclaro
“There needs to be a lot more emphasis on what a child can do instead of what they cannot do” –Temple Grandin
Speaking as someone who was born with multiple disabilities, the above quote really speaks volumes in my mind. From the moment I entered the world on December 11th 1998, I had an immediate understanding of the word “adversity” as I had been diagnosed with things such as hydrocephalus and mild cerebral palsy; in addition to epilepsy from ages 3 to 10. Growing up, I was fully aware that I was different, some examples were that I had a team of adults who were specially trained to look after me in school, I was subjected to one grade level of math for three years and I wore a custom made brace on my left leg. These reasons made me the outcast in school and it didn’t help that I had a lot of trouble understanding other people’s emotions and picking up social cues.
I have always been open about living with multiple disabilities but the turning point really came when I received my diagnosis of mild autism spectrum disorder in the seventh grade. At the time when I got tested, I didn’t really know what I was in for but I knew that it was requested by my elementary school’s department of special education.
Upon reading the psychiatrist’s letter a couple of weeks after being tested, I was initially shocked but came to realize that every little thing I had done throughout my life made sense, such as: walking around in circles, voicing my thoughts aloud without a care in the world if other people heard me and only being engaged in a conversation regarding whatever topic I was crazy about; whether that was a celebrity, a television show or a movie. Then I further explored my diagnosis through countless hours of research, and it wasn’t long before I decided that I wanted to become an advocate for those in the community with disabilities. I dreamed of being the voice for people who didn’t have one. Six years later and I continue to find ways to raise awareness.
However, regardless of how many times I’ve told my story over the years, I’ve discovered that not everyone will be as receptive as I would hope. I first learned this lesson through an experience I often refer to as The Lion’s Call; which started when a former friend of mine asked for my help on a paper for her psychology class- detailing the life of someone who defied the expectations of society. I saw this as a chance to have my voice heard, so I gladly offered my assistance. Unfortunately the response my friend received for the paper was unlike anything I had ever expected to hear. The professor was glad that my friend valued me like a younger brother but she was curious to know if due to my disabilities, I fully understood what it meant to identify as transgender. Did I know what I was asking for by identifying this way or was I just imitating something I saw on TV?
Naturally, I was upset and I told my friend how I felt. She told me that she didn’t think the feedback was that bad; which only escalated my pain. But I could not see past it. The thought of a respectable adult questioning my capacity infuriated me but it brought me to a point of clarity; which turned into a lesson that I preach to the audiences who are willing to listen. If you’ve met one person with a certain disability, you’ve only met one person. Different conditions affect everyone in a variety of ways. You will never meet two people with the exact same story because they have different gifts and talents to offer the world. I’ve found that my strength lies beneath the ways in which I am able to articulate my feelings through writing.
One of the most common subjects I have found while living life openly with multiple disabilities is roadblocks or hurdles; meaning even though I try not to let anything get in the way of achieving the goals I have set, there are just some things in life I am not able to control but I can improve on. That being said, I believe that my greatest hurdle is my struggle with anxiety and depression; a common factor in every diagnosis I have received throughout my life.
Much like every other mental health issue in the world, anxiety and depression present themselves in various forms depending on the person affected. In my case, my brain processes things such as sound and sight a little differently than others. For example, a room filled with countless people socializing and having fun might be fine for someone else. But in my eyes, it is an immediate anxiety provoking situation. My brain goes into overdrive thinking about ways to escape; if not that, the deepest darkest thoughts then start fighting for space.
When I reflect on the ways in which my anxiety and depression have affected me and my disabilities, one word comes to mind: accessibility. Upon hearing or seeing this word, I instantly think about whatever anyone may need to make themselves feel comfortable in unfamiliar situations or the tools that they require achieving success in general. While attending school, I had an individual education plan (most commonly referred to as an IEP); which is a legal document detailing the accommodations necessary for me to feel safe and comfortable such as: frequent breaks and walks, the use of assistive technology and a quiet space to calm down and process my feelings whenever I became anxious.
Despite the fact that I am not currently enrolled in any kind of post-secondary education, I still believe that my needs continue exist and my accommodations are applicable elsewhere. There are some times when I am surrounded by my friends and I know I should feel happy but then it just comes a point where it gets to be too much and all I can hear are warning signals in my head telling me to get out but I can’t. I would just be really sad if my anxiety was the reason I had to leave a solid foundation of friends behind.
Overall, I think accessibility is the key to maintain the feelings of security and happiness in people. But the only way to really know for sure is to ask. We all process the world in our own ways and require different tools to in order to achieve their definition of success, so why not do everything you can to help them? It should be our honor praise people for what they are able to contribute to the world. Whether disabled or neurotypical, we should embrace the gifts that each of us has because we are the people who will change the world.
Aaron-James Preclaro is an 18 year-old transgender man of Filipino descent. He has spoken to a variety of audiences about his disabilities and gender journey.