Author Ola Ojewumi for the Dear World campaign.
As a little kid, I knew that I was different.
I was never, for example, the athletic type. I dreaded gym class and would do anything to avoid it. I wasn’t as fast as others my age and was always picked last for team sports.
It wasn’t until the fifth grade that I learned why. To everyone's surprise, I was diagnosed with a rare heart condition that had gone undetected for years. At nine years old, I knew my life would never be the same.
I reacted by diving head first into my pillow. I spent that night crying and hoping I would wake up from a bad dream. But I never did wake up. I became a heart and kidney transplant survivor before becoming a teenager. And I went from being an average unathletic able-bodied kid to a disabled young woman with a chip on my shoulder.
I didn’t want to take medication for the rest of my life or struggle to walk short distances. I wanted to go to concerts without having to wear a mask because of my weak immune system. I wanted to have friends who weren’t nurses in the cardiac unit of the hospital. I wanted to be just like the other kids my age.
I remember looking down at my chest. The only thing I saw was a long scar through which doctors had opened me to remove and replace my heart. I thought to myself: Will this continue to define the rest of my life?
We all have differences that can make us feel self-conscious, angry, and frightened. Sometimes it's race, gender identity, sexuality, disability, ethnicity, or other unique characteristics isolate us. But I urge you not to let your differences defeat you. Coming from someone with a lot of firsthand experience, it can go a long way to embrace them. Here’s how.
I decided that even if I were never going to be considered the “pretty” or “popular” girl, I •would• be the successful one. I became an overachiever, working really hard in student government to create changes in my school and larger community. I set out to prove that people with disabilities could be intellectually brilliant, have incredible careers, and become game-changers in our fields. I committed myself to social justice, which has opened doors to opportunities with the White House, United Nations Population Fund, and the State Department’s Young African Leaders Initiative.
Disability is not synonymous with inability. We all have hardships, but we also have a lot to offer the world. When you feel discouraged, find your potential and run with it.
I spent years of my life trying to hide my disability from the world. I struggled to walk short distances and, instead of trying to use mobility aides, I suffered in silence so I could look able-bodied. It didn’t matter how many difficulties I encountered or how much physical pain I had to endure; I wanted to appear “normal” at any cost. But I reached a breaking point where I couldn’t hide any longer. I began utilizing a motorized wheelchair. It was a game-changer. It gave me access to a life that I’d never dreamed of having. I was no longer confined to the four walls of my home and school. Of course, I had to deal with ableism — a system of discrimination based on able-bodied privilege and institutionalized oppression. But I could move on my own terms. If you’re hiding something because you're scared of standing out, here’s your permission to stop. You deserve to be the best version of yourself, even and especially when that makes you different.
Once I was in a wheelchair, I started noticing that I was no longer being treated like an average human-being. I became the center of attention everywhere I went. Many people even mistakenly assume I am homeless when I wear casual clothing like sweats, simply because I'm in a wheelchair. Eventually, since everyone was staring at me already, I figured I might as well give them something nice to look at. I traded in my usual attire for Michelle Obama-esque dresses and pearls to match. My style was even noticed by Bold & Beauty art exhibition and Glamour magazine. I decided my disability made me beautiful without needing the approval of others to affirm it. Remember that you are in charge. Take control of your image and wear your confidence however you want to show it off.
It can be easy to forget that you are not society’s view of normal ... until, that is, a stranger reminds you. I learned this during my last business trip to New York City. I was sitting outside of Starbucks with a friend when a man approached me with a Bible. He told me, “You have a malfunction and Jesus can fix you.” He became startled when I stood up and began walking towards him saying, “What malfunction?” I sternly explained that many disabled people aren’t keen on being told they’re cursed and don’t in fact wake up wishing for miracles. After all, God made us all different for a reason. Don’t let people trample you with their prejudice. It’s okay to speak up and fight back.
In my twenties, I've found myself at a turning point in my life where I can actually embrace my disability and use what makes me different to change the world. I started my own nonprofit, Project ASCEND, which funds the education of youth in the United States and abroad. In 2017, the American Association of People with Disabilities honored Project ASCEND, along with Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, for our work in disability compliance for higher education. I’ve even been able to amplify my message of inclusion for people with disabilities while serving on nonprofit boards for Lady Gaga and former Secretary of State, General Colin Powell.
I’ve been privileged enough to live out my dreams because of my disabilities, not in spite of them. Though many perceive the disabled experience as a sorrowful existence, I describe it differently because I choose to turn sadness into social justice. The good news? You can too.
Images courtesy of Ola Ojewumi