Part I: Rising Above Obstacles
One of my favorite songs is “Defying Gravity” from the musical Wicked. It contains the lyrics, “I’m through accepting limits, ‘cause someone said they’re so. Some things I cannot change, but till I try, I’ll never know.” To me, this song, performed by Idina Menzel, expresses the determination that I have always had to strive for success despite my neurological differences, and my desire to challenge myself in new ways rather than defining myself by a label or a disability. I was fortunate to have parents and mentors who emphasized the importance of focusing on what I can do rather than what I can’t. I carried that philosophy with me throughout my life, and I am proud to say that it has led me to success.
In middle school and high school, I took a number of honors and Advanced Placement classes. I was the one of the first students on an IEP to take some of these classes. Some of my teachers were hesitant to make accommodations to classes that they had been teaching for years; arguing that since I was smart enough to be in an advanced class, I was “too smart” to need accommodations. After these teachers were informed that my disability was related to attention and processing rather than intelligence, and that they were required by state and Federal law to follow the guidelines in my IEP; I was able to do very well in their classes. I even got an A+ on my final project from the teacher considered to be the hardest and most critical grader in the entire school. My success in these classes inspired other students on IEP’s to sign up for the classes in the years that followed; and they found that the teachers had become much more flexible about making accommodations.
My determination to rise above obstacles was not limited to academics; but extended to extracurricular activities as well. When I was five, my parents were advised by professionals to sign me up for ballet classes; in the hopes that they would improve my poor coordination and gross motor delays that resulted from my sensory integration disability. I enjoyed my dance lessons and also found a new mentor in my dance instructor; and continued to study with her throughout the years. Like all young ballerinas, I was eager to progress to the advanced level of ballet known as “pointe,” where the dancer performs on her toes, rather than the balls of her feet as beginning ballet students do. Pointe requires the dancer to have significant muscle strength in her quadriceps (upper thigh muscles) after taking several years of ballet classes, and she wears special toe shoes instead of regular soft ballet shoes. Because of my delays, I was still dancing in soft shoes at the age of 14, while the other dancers my age had been on pointe for several years. I was aware that pointe would be more of a challenge for me than for others and that I might not ever acquire the muscular strength necessary for pointe. However, I was determined to dance on pointe and I wanted to at least give it a try. My dance teacher allowed me to train for pointe, and by the end of my freshman year in high school; she told me I was ready. I got my first pair of toe shoes, and the following year, I performed a solo on pointe in the dance recital.
In addition to my attention and motor issues, I also had a speech disorder as a teenager. I spoke unintelligibly and often stuttered. Nevertheless, I did not let it prevent me from auditioning for my high school’s theater productions. I spent a lot of time practicing my monologue for auditions; and discovered that when I was reciting from a script I had memorized, I was able to speak completely fluently as I was putting all of my focus on how I was speaking rather than what I was saying. I introduced myself to the theater teacher; who later told me that he initially was hesitant to cast me in a speaking part because of my speech disorder; but then when he heard me read from the script at auditions, he was so impressed that he gave me a significant speaking part.
I was quite nervous at first; but he worked with me to make me feel at ease and perform my role with an acting ability that I hadn’t even known I possessed before. On the opening night of the play, the audience was fascinated by my performance. People couldn’t believe that this was the same girl who used to stutter every time she opened her mouth; and I was showered with praises and admiration when I walked out into the lobby after the show. I felt like a Hollywood star, and it was the highlight of my high school experience. Today, I no longer have a speech impediment, and I believe that acting played a role (excuse the pun) in making my speech fluent.
Throughout my college and into my adult life; I have approached each new situation with the same determination and confidence that I had in high school when taking an advanced placement class, learning to dance on pointe, and acting in plays. I attended a highly selective college and graduated in four years with a GPA of 3.16. I wrote for the college newspaper, led a student retreat where I gave a talk, participated in an outreach trip to the Bronx over spring break, took voice lessons, sang in the college chorus, performed in a musical theater production, was on the dance team, served on a committee to educate students about violence prevention and safety issues, and still managed to find plenty of time to socialize and make many wonderful friends that would last a lifetime. Today, I am married, have been employed at the Federation for Children for Special Needs in a variety of roles for over a decade, and own a home. I also have written a book (pending publishing) about my experiences growing up with ADHD, and have started writing a fictional novel. In addition, I sing in my church’s choir every Sunday, have taught myself to play guitar, and have written some original songs. I am also very passionate about politics and this past fall I volunteered on a campaign to get a candidate elected.
I didn’t get this far by playing it safe. Had I not taken the risks; I never would have been able to achieve all that I have. It certainly hasn’t been easy for me, but the results were well worth it. I hope that you can be inspired by my story and learn that you, too, are more than just a disability or a diagnosis. Don’t be discouraged just because you have a specific condition that presents challenges. Just like the song says, some things you cannot change, but until you try you’ll never know!
This is not to say that I have succeeded at everything I tried, or that I have completely surpassed all the limitations that my specific condition presents. In fact, you may be wondering, what happens when you try your best at something and discover that you aren’t able to overcome obstacles or master the skill? And are there times or situations when it’s best not to try something new or to give up at attempting? I will address these questions in the second part of this series. Stay tuned!
By Becky Rizoli
By Becky Rizoli