I was Just Looking at Your Eyes

by Maria Cerio

Dedicated to my supportive family, friends, doctors, physical therapists, and kind strangers. Without you, my progress would not exist. I am forever grateful.

Lift foot, extend leg, toe up, repeat. With every stride I take, these thoughts fly through my mind, at the same speed that I picture myself being able to run when my head rests on my pillow at night.

When I was three years old, Transverse Myelitis (TM) ravaged my spinal cord. In one moment, the rare neurological disease attacked my body, rendering me paralyzed from the neck down.

My case is idiopathic, meaning no cause could be determined at the time of diagnosis or to this date. The prognosis was that I would likely never walk again. However, I defied those odds.

Today, the image of me lying motionless the night of my onset has faded from the foreground. That night, I was propped up just to flop over.

I have written and told this story, my story, time and time again—for school assignments, college essays, to those who are close to me, even to curious strangers. However, this version is different. It is the college edition. For fifteen years and counting, I have endured the penetration of botox shots, countless hours of physical therapy, and staring contests with no winners. I am now a freshman attending the George Washington University in DC—a point in my life I never thought I would reach.

The journey that began fifteen years ago with my diagnosis continues. Each day still presents its own challenges: regaining and maintaining my strength, managing chronic fatigue, relearning basic motor skills, and mastering my uncooperative muscles. On top of the obstacles and stresses of a typical college student, exist those of a typical TM patient. My college experience began with setting up physical therapy appointments at the George Washington University Hospital. I did this even before registering for classes. I arrived on campus weakened by the twelve botox shots I had received only three days earlier. The shots are intended to decrease my muscle spasms, while trying not to make me too weak. It is a delicate balance. A crack in the sidewalk could be my demise. Each placement of my foot tests my balance, strength, and muscle memory. When I finally take my seat in lecture, with the walk to class behind me absent of falls, I am elated. With hands that were once paralyzed, writing the answers on an exam makes for cramps and worn-out fingers. Next, comes the difficulty of articulating the ideas that I have struggled to memorize. When I turn in that exam, I am ecstatic. It is a life full of big little triumphs.

Integrating into a college community, which at times seems to value similarity, has been and continues to be difficult. Assimilating is challenging. I have met those who are accepting and those who are the opposite. I have met people who turn their head so far around to gawk at my gait that I think their neck might snap. And, I have met those who respect me more for my challenges and disability.

The moments in which these interactions take place are so significant to me. I oftentimes wonder if these encounters mean half as much to the other person involved. A particular memory lingers. One of the first people I met when I arrived at GW said one of the most meaningful things that I have ever been told and the crazy thing is, he may not even be aware of it.

Several weeks after having met him, my exam testing accommodations came up in conversation. He was perplexed as to why I was a student registered with GW Disability Support Services (DSS) and curious about the nature of my accommodations. In the most polite way possible, he inquired about what my accommodations were for. Now, it was my turn to be baffled. I was unsure if he was just being nice or if he had genuinely never noticed my physical disability, which is obvious in the way I walk. So I bluntly asked, “Are you being serious? I have a physical disability.” He sincerely answered, “I’ve never noticed. What do you mean?” Incredulous, I explained how most people notice that I walk differently and stare at my legs. He responded, “Why would I look at your legs? I was just looking at your eyes.” Those few words have never left my mind. It was beyond my imagination that someone would see me first, before they saw my disability.

One of the biggest reasons that I chose to attend GW was because it seemed to be the most accepting and prepared to address my disability head-on. The DSS office was knowing and sensitive. Despite its incredible resources, I still see room for progress in increasing inclusivity on this campus. I have encountered professors uncomfortable with accommodation plans, I have been involved in school clubs uncomfortable with disability, and I have attended diversity events where the attendance was close to zero.

Even on this forward-moving and diverse campus, there is a need to motivate people, to educate people, and to sensitize people on the topic of disability. I did not invite transverse myelitis into my life, but I have decided to make advocating for people with disability my passion. My goal is to make the college experience and life in general easier for future students with challenges. “Easier” means existing in a community where exclusion is replaced by acceptance.

I will not let my experiences be for naught. I am in the process of forming a new student organization on campus geared towards the inclusivity of students with disabilities, I am an official note-taker for a student with disability, and I was recently accepted to be on the Disability Support Services Speakers Bureau, which is an organization that addresses different crowds on the topic of disability, education, advocating, and spreading awareness. In preparation for the future, I am also involved in an organization which focusses on workforce diversity.

Transverse Myelitis did not leave me unscathed; it robbed me of some of my abilities, but it also left me with a far more important one: the ability to put life in perspective. I know I am fortunate. I defied the odds. Now, I plan to take my journey and do something impactful with it.

I would not change my set of experiences for anything. I am not defined by my diagnosis or my limitations; I am empowered by them.

To those of you who do not stare, I thank you. And to those of you who do, I hope this satisfies your curiosity.