When I was 16, I attended a meeting in an unfamiliar town. I got lost on the way, so I stopped at a gas station for directions. Instead of getting help with directions, the cops were called on the suspicion that a mentally retarded man was disorientated and I was told to go home.

Situations like that happen to me several times a year.

In a typical day, I’m asked to repeat half the things I say. I’ve been laughed at for just trying to ask a question and not laughed at while trying to tell a joke. Any simple request can take several minutes to communicate, and even then, the person I’m talking to might only be pretending to fully understand.

Some days I had wanted to end my life – or at least kill the part of me that has the speech impediment.

For a long time, I thought my disability was an ugly part of me, something that would go away if I only wished and prayed. I remember watching an episode of “Full House” in grade school where one of the characters talked about waking up one day and miraculously having no more pimples. For a while afterwards, I would lie in bed in the morning imagining that it was finally the day that I had woken up with perfect speech. It never was.

The doctors said I would grow out of it by high school, but high school came and went, and I stayed the same. By “it” I mean apraxia and dysarthria, terms I have avoided using for most my life because they seemed to smack of the stigma of being disabled. Apraxia is a neurological disorder concerning the loss of the brain’s ability to cue certain learned movements, while dysarthria is a disorder in the nervous system that impedes control over the tongue, lips, throat or lungs.

Speech therapy helped me overcome the worst manifestations of these conditions. But ultimately, what made the greatest difference was when I said fuck it and decided to live my life.

This change in attitude happened during my first year of college at Earlham College in Indiana when I helped plan Disability Awareness Month. By organizing this event, I had to face the fact that I live with a disability. It is who I am. It has shaped my life. It is a factor in all my decisions and all my relationships. But also I realized it can only be a disadvantage if I let it be. Right now I live a full life with numerous friends and a loving family. At 23 years old, I have seen much of the world and have a B.A. in saving it – I studied Peace & Global Studies. Without my disability, I don’t know what my life would be like, but I know that I wouldn’t be the same person. And I would never want that.

Of course, even with this self-realization, the obstacles are no less real. I know I won’t ever be able to hold a job that involves public speaking. I am still scared about finding that special someone who will look past the initial garbled pick-up line. And ordering a pizza will never be as simple as it sounds.

I’ll never completely lose my apprehension about encountering new situations and people, but I’ve proven able to overcome the worst of it. After just a month of living in Ann Arbor, I’ve made friends and a comfortable life for myself. Partly, I think that it’s the openness of Ann Arbor. But mostly I know it’s been me.

That day when I was 16, I left that gas station wounded but not defeated. I found the meeting location and went on with my life. It was the only thing I could do.

-Greg Woods is the program coordinator for Michigan Peaceworks in Ann Arbor.

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