'I don't remember when I realized I was different'
By James Shea
I sat in the bleachers at the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill, N.C. last year. Erskine Bowles, the former president of the University of North Carolina and a presidential appointee to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, gave the keynote address. I scanned the rafters and saw the multiple national championship banners.
“What a journey,” I thought to myself at age 40. “I have come so far.”
I was raised in a small farming community in Oregon and was born with one arm. I was in Chapel Hill for the annual North Carolina Press Association awards and surrounded by fellow newspaper professionals. I won first place in the “Best Breaking News” category and was at the event to receive the award. I had beat out dozens of other newspapers in the state and who knows how many reporters.
It was not my first. I have won a dozen writing awards. Some were as part of a team and others as an individual. I did this all as a disabled journalist, something that makes me proud.
The journey was not easy and required hard work and dedication. I had so many people along the way who doubted my abilities and even thought being disabled somehow made me stupid. Please! There is no relationship between my disability and my brain. I know that I am not the smartest person in the world, but I’m not dumb either. I have two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Oregon and survived 10 years in a dying profession – print journalism.
It didn’t start off so well. I barely graduated high school and have struggled with depression as an adult. I have screamed at the world, pissed at the cards I was dealt. But nothing will change my situation.
I am disabled, and I will be that way as long as God allows me to walk this earth.
I don’t remember when I realized that I was different. While I have one arm, the disability goes much deeper. My entire right shoulder never really formed in my mother’s womb. I have a small finger that protrudes from my partially formed shoulder. Anyone who looks at me sees my disability. It’s rather obvious. I see it in people’s eyes, especially young children. They stare at me in the grocery store or the park.
“Look mommy, that man has one arm,” the child often says.
It makes me feel uncomfortable even to this day, but I have come to terms with that. I will not hide from the world. I have a right to earn a living and find happiness just like anyone else. I just have to work a little harder.
I never really planned to be a journalist or a writer. It just happened. I did a few freelance articles after college and took a job at a small community newspaper in Colorado. I was not very good at first. I mostly covered city council and county commissioners. My editors were patient with me. They taught me better ways to tell a story and how to dig deeper into a subject. And through that process, I had to deal with the awkwardness of being a disabled journalist. But I adapted. I had to place my notepad on my knee, when others held it with their hand. I never let the odd looks and uncomfortable situations get in the way. I had a job to do.
When I was young, I told myself, “I’m normal.” This story worked until puberty. Then, my friends got girlfriends and kissed them for the first time. I know girls, especially teenage girls, had a problem with my disability. I understand. That didn’t make it easier. But my junior year in high school, I met a young woman who looked past my disability and dug herself deep into my heart. We dated throughout high school and are still friends today. As I got older, the dating became easier as women matured, and I became more confident in my own skin.
For my parents, it was hard. They saw my struggles and wanted to help.
As a reaction, they often sheltered me from the consequences of my actions. I did something dumb, and my parents, especially my mom, would make excuses. I went unpunished.
If I can give parents of a disabled child any advice, it’s this – don’t be over-protective. You need to be as hard on them as you are on any child. Yes, growing up with a disability is hard. I won't say it's not. But don’t make excuses. A child is a child. He or she makes bad choices, and they must understand those actions have consequences.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a memoir about my experiences as a disabled person and a dog who helped me through a tough period in my early 20s. I had several New York agents read the manuscript, but none chose to represent me. My friends who read the manuscript pressed me to find a home for the manuscript. I recently published the manuscript, Plucking Wolf Fur, as an ebook on Amazon. I want parents of disabled children to learn from my experiences. Life can be bad, you can make bad choices, but in the end you can find peace and your place in the world.
James Michael Shea is an award winning-journalist and is the author of Plucking Wolf Fur: A story of one arm, one dog, and an American family. He blogs about his book and media convergence at http://www.jamesmichaelshea.com/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.