by Mai Thor, board member of The Youth Legacy Foundation, disability advocate, writer
If I had to do it all again, I think I would change just one thing from my days as a youth with a disability: not having an adult with a disability to mentor me. I acquired polio when I was five years old and have basically used a manual wheelchair from that point on. I suppose to many people, perhaps especially non-disabled individuals, the expectation is that my childhood was really tough and challenging with a disability. That while all my friends went off to play on the weekends, I sat at home and got left behind. Well, that wasn’t the case. I remember having lots of fun with friends, sleep overs, going out—all the typical things that all young people do. My childhood is not a sob story due to my disability.
That’s not to say, however, that I didn’t know and recognize the fact that I was different. Despite always having friends around me who treated me the same as anyone else, I always knew that I was the one who used the wheelchair, and they were not. My disability came with a certain set of growing pains that other youth never experience who are not disabled. Being young is challenging enough, but to add all the oddities one feels from disability is sometimes overwhelming. At times, I felt very inadequate, outcasted and even lonely. Most of my friends had their parents, a teacher, or perhaps a coach to help them along the way during their youth phases. Of course, I had the same as well, but again, a certain set of my experiences were so different that most of the adults in my life at the time could not provide the right words or the encouragement I needed. What would have been wonderful is if I had someone in my life who was a disabled adult to help me along during those years. Someone who clearly had a disability, such as myself, yet was able to get through their formative years as a youth as well, and became a successful adult with a disability. Someone who went through it all and survived and could pass along a few words of encouragement to let me know that I, too, would be okay.
Growing up in the 80′s and 90′s as a young person with a disability did bring on some difficult moments, especially since the ADA didn’t show up until high school. I remember a time when I wanted to enroll in a certain public school as I entered my freshman year, but was denied because there were no elevators. It’s not likely that a situation like that would happen today. I think back on my youth in Indianapolis and wonder how different the experience would have been if there had been someone in my life who had gone through some of those same tough times to provide support and emotional guidance.
For this reason, I am honored to be a part of the board of The Youth Legacy Foundation. I can’t do much about my own youth now (since I am thirty-five!), but I can do something about youth with disabilities of today. I cherish the memories from my youth, despite those challenges—I did have a lot of fun. It’s a time in an individual’s life that holds a special place. I hope that I can keep those memories positive for youth with disabilities in my role with YLF by matching young people up with opportunities and mentors that can enrich their lives. I wish to provide youth with disabilities the chance to look back when they are adults to say that they found something special through YLF, some words of encouragement and support that helped make the journey a little easier.