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Humans with disabilities also have a heart

Typical people go out with friends, date, have relationships without really worrying about their dependence on others, and rarely have to worry about discrimination and/or stereotypes. For most people with disabilities, however, almost none of these things are typical. 

Being a person with cerebral palsy, a neurological-motor disability, has made me more conscious about how society is both advancing and staying behind in terms of equality, acceptance and inclusion of people with different abilities.

Arcelia Mendoza, left, and her friend Jessica Tarin pose for a photo before a Jesse and Joy concert at The Plaza Theatre Performing Arts Center in El Paso, Texas, Thursday, March 31, 2022. Mendoza’s sister waited for her outside. (Courtesy photo)

The U.S. government has established mandates to somewhat accommodate people with disabilities. Public places, buildings, educational institutions and workplaces must be somehow accessible, accommodating and inclusive toward those who have physical and/or cognitive conditions. Now, such individuals can go out into the community, attend school, earn a degree and/or work without major problems.

Even though people like me are more integrated into society, the struggles to fit in and not be the elephant in the room are still predominant, especially in the more personal aspects of life. The fact I have to use a power wheelchair for mobility and depend on others for personal care might cause some average people to assume I’m not self-productive. This limits me from fully living and enjoying a social life, relationships and/or intimacy.

Due to CP, my body movement, coordination, balance and posture are irregular, but I still have physical movement, sensation and can even walk with help. Also, I attend college because I can learn, think and feel like any average person. Therefore, ever since I’ve been old enough, I have always wanted to experience going out with friends, dating, receiving and giving romantic gifts and so on without depending on family or fearing rejection.

I often go out with just family and family friends, which I do enjoy, but what young adult doesn’t want to hang out only with friends to talk, have a drink or party without the supervision of a family member? Every time a friend invites me elsewhere, someone must drive me there.

Obtaining permission to hang out with a friend is generally not a problem. Yet, I still feel uncomfortable to ask any family member to take me somewhere unusual because I don’t like disrupting anyone’s daily routine, even if they are willing to help. Thus, I would rather not hang out with friends, especially if the meeting place is a party, bar or nightclub. In such cases, I have always preferred for a friend to drive my accessible minivan, but that obviously depends on whether my family trusts my friend and me enough. Occasionally, when a family member takes me out to meet a friend, it’s to usual places like movie theaters, coffee and tea shops, dinners and sometimes concerts — always with the family member either overseeing me or waiting for me outside.

Often deciding not to go out with friends makes school and social media the main sites to meet people. For me, school has been the primary physical place to not only make new friends, but also to have crushes. Throughout high school and college, I have experienced a couple of them. Yet, I’ve only ever confessed my feelings toward these guys twice because of my fear of rejection. 

“Academically and professionally, I know I can break stereotypes and overcome discrimination toward disabilities because that is totally in my hands. But when it comes to my personal aspirations, I can only do so much because society still doesn’t completely recognize that people with different abilities also have the human need to meet with friends, date, love, be loved and have a healthy and full sexuality like anyone else.”

As a second-semester high school freshman, I met the reason for the depression I suffered — my first big crush. He was a high school senior and a handsome guy, not only on the outside, but on the inside. One day during my Spanish II class, he was kind enough to put the textbook on my desk. Of course, I thanked him with a smile. He always greeted me with a “hi.” I would reply to him, but I always tried to avoid making eye contact with him.

When I saw him, I didn’t know how to explain what I felt for him because I had never felt anything like it. I felt happy and sad at the same time. I couldn’t express it, either. I couldn’t confess to him my feelings because he would never have an interest in a physically disabled girl like me. Before he graduated from high school, I got depressed for hiding all my feelings.

Arcelia Mendoza, seated, dances with guests all night long at a friend’s wedding celebration in Cancun, Mexico, Feb. 2, 2022. Mendoza’s sister joined her afterward. (Photo courtesy of Concepcion Mendoza)

That made me fall into a deep depression. I wasn’t interested in anything or anyone. I only slept, and sometimes I couldn’t even do that. The doctors gave me pills for depression that made me feel worse. That’s how I spent about four months. The only thing that truly helped me was writing. In poems, I wrote everything I felt, but couldn’t say out loud. Before that I didn’t like to write in English; I preferred math. This helped me a lot to grow, become stronger and more self-confident.

When I graduated from high school, I sent him a text confessing what I had felt for him. After the guy replied to that text, he stopped answering my texts, even though I made it clear I was conscious of the fact he did not feel the same way about me. 

The second time I expressed my interest in a guy was as a college sophomore. He did feel attraction for me, but since I usually don’t hang out with friends, we didn’t see each other much. He ended up getting a girlfriend.

On social media, I’m freer to interact with my school friends and meet new people as I can do it from home. Also, I use an augmentative and alternative communication device — a regular-computer functioning device that speaks whatever I type. That’s why social media is an easy way for me to socialize.

Nonetheless, in-person and virtual scammers are always lurking for victims. Unfortunately, a guy I met online about a year ago who was supposedly in the military recently scammed me financially and emotionally. He convinced me to believe that he had fallen in love with me during the first eight months. At first, I was skeptical about it, but he continued sending me cute texts that painted castles on the air. Little by little, I stupidly got my hopes up. He earned my trust, and in December 2021 persuaded me to send him money and then my personal information, giving me various reasons why he needed money. This is an action I regret doing with all my heart because he not only took advantage of me monetarily, but he also took my trust.

All this became known to my family this past February when he overdrew my bank account, and I had to confess it. At first, I wasn’t sure how to tell my family members what happened because of the way they would react. Minutes later, my sister asked me yes and no questions, and most of the answers were “yes.” She was absolutely right with everything she told me at that moment. I felt guilty for everything my family — particularly my sister — had given me. Since then, I feel unworthy of asking my sister to buy me stuff even though she is still willing to do so.

Days later, I decided to report the guy to the police after I blocked him because he started threatening me.

I’m currently going to counseling to get rid of the guilt I have because I feel it’s totally my fault that my family is stressed out about the owed money.

My family members love me. They will always want to protect me and want what’s best for me. They might also have gotten angry at themselves because they couldn’t protect me from this scammer who took advantage of me, but many times that’s how life is. Even though I have a physical disability, I’m intellectually normal and must live through the adversities of life to learn from them as any ordinary person would.

I really don’t regret often choosing to stay with my family instead of going out with friends. I usually try to ignore my own wants and needs to not make my family uncomfortable, but those desires to hang out with friends, date and have relationships without depending on any family member or worrying about stereotypes and discrimination are still within me.

Cerebral palsy causes my brain to not completely control my body movement, coordination, balance and posture. Yes, my body doesn’t function 100%, but my mind, heart and soul are 100% there. And this is what makes me a normal human being who is always susceptible to feel, fall in love and make mistakes. I can think, learn and feel as any average person. Sometimes, I just wish having CP would somehow give me the power to not like guys and fall in love, but that’s part of being human.

Academically and professionally, I know I can break stereotypes and overcome discrimination toward disabilities because that is totally in my hands. But when it comes to my personal aspirations, I can only do so much because society still doesn’t completely recognize that people with different abilities also have the human need to meet with friends, date, love, be loved and have a healthy and full sexuality like anyone else.

Society should be more conscious about these kinds of human needs among people with different abilities instead of trying to repress them. I know we are different from average people, but that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve to love and be loved. Society must educate itself about how to provide sex education to people with disabilities. It should be less stereotypical, more inclusive, understandable, acceptable, diverse and include people who have disabilities in its sex education programs.

If ordinary people see that people with disabilities are also included in the social and sexual aspects of life, they might stop prejudging and stereotyping, and start accepting and respecting us just the way we are. If society itself is diverse, we should be too. Only then will we all have a more equal, tolerable and inclusive society.

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