By Mark E. Smith
In my 20s, I achieved notoriety for jumping power wheelchairs off of ramps. To see a guy with cerebral palsy rev up a power wheelchair and jump it off of a ramp, a few feet in the air, was quite the spectacle. For me, it was a mix of misguided bravado, showmanship and stupidity. Unfortunately, though, it worked.
See, although I had overcome and was accomplishing a lot – I was a formal academic and writer at the time – people seemed mildly interested in any of that. But, the power wheelchair jumping, which I cringe to think now as a bit of a freak show, was an attention magnet. Before I knew it, I was featured in big-time magazines, and due to the advent of the Internet, I became widely known as “the guy who jumped power wheelchairs.” Soon, my reputation was bigger than I ever imagined, labeled by one men’s magazine as the “Stunt Cripple” – and my identity fractured.
There was no talent or point in jumping power wheelchairs. It, again, was a shameless spectacle. And, it surely wasn’t who I was. There was so much more to my life and accomplishments. Yet, a single aspect was defining me by reputation. I began to feel boxed in – and I wanted to be who I really was, instead of a one-dimensional caricature.
Many of us have found ourselves in such an identity crisis, haven’t we? We find ourselves in the situation of who others project us as isn’t who we are. In my case, it was admittedly of my own doing, but so often misconceptions, projections or circumstances by others can leave us feeling boxed in. No one should be defined by one dimension; rather, we should be seen in our entirety.
Now, my example of falling into an identity trap is a unique, ridiculous one – stupidity reigned – but it wasn’t the end of the world for my life and career. In far more serious examples, some of us have been boxed in to identities who we’re really not – and it’s been painful and extremely detrimental. How many of us have been in relationships where we felt obligated to act as someone we’re not? How many of us have been stereotyped based on our ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, and so on? How many of us have been labeled based on where we live, what we do for a living, or even how we dress? Indeed, most of us at some point have felt our entirety stripped down to a single trait that doesn’t just make us seem one-dimensional, but may not reflect us at all. The vital question is, how do we avoid that trap?
In some cases, we can’t. We may inevitably encounter stereotypes and ignorance that we can’t control. However, we can control our own behavior and teach people how to treat us. I recently did a big press conference in the New York City metro area. With a podium full of microphones, a row of TV cameras and a crowd of people, I don’t think a person in the room expected me to take the podium. After all, when’s the last time you saw a guy with severe cerebral palsy and a speech impairment command a press conference? But, I wasn’t going to let others’ perceptions or my disability define me. I made it clear that I’d take the podium – and I ended up on the NYC ABC affiliate’s 6 o’clock news that night holding the press conference.
We don’t have to be boxed in by ourselves or anyone else. With a little courage and a lot of introspection, we can most often avoid one-dimensional identities we misguidedly create or are thrust upon us by others. People call me a lot of titles nowadays – General Manager, writer, advocate, humanitarian, intellectual – but there’s one title that taking control of my own actions and identity buried a long time ago: Stunt Cripple.