‘I was bursting with joy. Every cell in my body had been waiting for this moment. I was on top of the world!’: Woman with cerebral palsy celebrates high school graduation, ‘I am more than my disability’

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“I was sitting with everyone’s eyes on me and a heart that was pumping fast. I was bursting with joy. It felt as if every cell in my body had been waiting for this moment. Everyone was smiling from ear to ear. I did not know where to place myself. All the molecules in my body were dancing in an ecstasy of happiness. Nothing less than happiness. The time it took for my mom to go to the table and lift the hat from its box felt like an eternity. She placed the hat on my head, and I could feel the leather rim under my chin. I had a big smile on my face – and a hat on my head. Incredible! I had succeeded.

After 5 years of studying, I was now sitting here, with the high school graduation hat on my head, and I felt ecstatic. I, literally, could not get my hands down. They were dancing involuntarily up over my head. It felt as if I was on top of the world. As my diploma witnessed, I had been right. It was possible to complete high school without any control of the limbs and no ability to speak orally.

Courtesy of Astrid Siemens Lorenzen
Courtesy of Astrid Siemens Lorenzen

November 26, 1999, my mom’s water broke. The hospital made several mistakes and was not able to get me out in time. When I finally was delivered, no life-giving scream could be heard. I was in a dead-like condition – far from the rest of the world. I was cold. I was bluish. I did not breathe. Every second mattered. My life was in their hands. Those, who did not deliver me in time. Those, who did not know what to do. Those, who had let me down. I had to be intubated, and I briefly received cardiac massage.

Courtesy of Astrid Siemens Lorenzen

As a consequence of the lack of oxygen during birth, I am left with a body that does not obey what I want to do and my limbs are dancing in a tireless pattern. I have a brain injury that causes me to have a disability called cerebral palsy and no control of my movements. That is why I sit in a wheelchair, I speak through an eye-controlled computer, and I have assistants 24 hours a day.

Courtesy of Astrid Siemens Lorenzen

Trapped in a body that is subject to another power, it has always been clear to me: It is my intellect I need to utilize. Therefore, this is what I am doing. Meanwhile, I am meeting resistance to this. If I am among people who are unfamiliar with me, I am often judged by my exterior and my competencies are underestimated. Many people have cast doubt on my abilities. In primary school, one of my teachers said to my parents: ‘How can we be sure it is Astrid who does the homework? She has people around her so it could as well be them.’ My father’s face turned red and my parents defended me. Of course, it was me who did the homework. This was not the only time I was discriminated against.

Courtesy of Astrid Siemens Lorenzen

I remember it as if it was yesterday: skeptical looks, folded arms, and frowned brows.

Just a few months had to pass and then I could have a fresh beginning. And now, here I was, sitting across from a man, my study advisor, who was to decide my fate. I told him I had a plan. I had known I wanted to attend high school since I was 10 years old, and I had already considered how it could be structured. All I ever wanted was to utilize my cognitive abilities and find my own way in life. I wanted so badly to take an education.

Courtesy of Astrid Siemens Lorenzen

To our big surprise, we received a message a few days later the study advisor declared me unfit for studying. At first, I could not believe my own ears. I could not understand it. I had good grades from primary school, I had no social or personal issues, and I was definitely not tired of going to school. But then it struck me. It felt as if I was stabbed in my stomach. Unexpected, unwanted, and almost unbearable. I felt stigmatized and discriminated against. The conclusive factor had without a doubt been my disability. Clearly, I was living in a society filled with prejudices and thoughts about everyone and everything. I kept telling myself it should not be an obstacle for living the life I wanted, and we would somehow manage to solve it. This was just another bump on the road we had to get over.

Courtesy of Astrid Siemens Lorenzen

The next day, I mustered up the courage to ask one of my favorite teachers if she knew about his decision. She was as shocked as we were. A relief spread in my body. Maybe there was still hope.

Courtesy of Astrid Siemens Lorenzen

Even though my study advisor had declared me unfit for studying, I decided to arrange a meeting with one of the high schools in town. The most wheelchair-accessible one. The school was from the early ’80s, and students with disabilities had been admitted before. However, the meeting was not a success. My spasticity increased like a whisk that shifted from tempo two to tempo five. I could feel a slight irritation I could never hide my nervousness. I was measured and weighed for everything I said and did. Selling our plan was like selling sand in the Sahara. It was like talking to a wall. No matter what we said, there was no excitement. There were just more critical questions. All they saw was my disability. But I did not give up on trying to convince them to admit me as a student yet.

Courtesy of Astrid Siemens Lorenzen

The next time I met the headmaster, he ended the meeting by saying, ‘Astrid you are welcome here after the summer holidays.’ I smiled, but soon I found out he lied to my face. I was not welcome. They demanded I take an admission exam, which would not normally be necessary when you had good grades, as I did. I cried. I had never before felt so discriminated against in my life, and then I knew with all of my heart: I had to change my plans.

We called the headmaster of the other high school in town. He said, ‘I have been following the case from the sidelines. It is a task that a high school must take on.’ I was happy and I had been worried if I had been too optimistic, but fortunately, I had stuck to my own ideas of what I wanted and what I could.

Courtesy of Astrid Siemens Lorenzen

When I started high school, I decided to try my very best. I decided to prove them wrong. The suspicions and rejections I experienced should never happen again, not to anyone. I started to get interested in politics and suddenly I could not stop using my voice. I became a board member of a political organization of young people with disabilities. Furthermore, I had the honor of receiving an award, and the one thing that was on my mind at the ceremony was to control my arms and avoid hitting Her Royal Highness Princess, who was presenting the award. She was standing right next to me.

Courtesy of Astrid Siemens Lorenzen

I am very passionate about improving the circumstances for people with disabilities. And as a journalist once expressed it, I am a revolt in flesh and blood against other people’s prejudices about people with a disability, and therefore paradoxically also shaped by these same ideas.

Courtesy of Astrid Siemens Lorenzen

I finished high school with one of the finest results in the country. I had aimed not to give the universities a reason to reject me. When I graduated, the Danish media let me tell my story. I was the first to graduate high school with an eye-controlled computer in Denmark. I had proved it is possible. It seemed there was no reason for the universities not to accept me. Yet that was far from the truth. Once again, I was rejected. Not from one, but several universities. I had the best grades I could possibly get, and still, it was not good enough. I have not given up. I will start university in the summer of 2021. I conquered rejection before, and I will do it again.

Courtesy of Astrid Siemens Lorenzen

I am more than my disability. I am going to prove I can and will achieve my goals. A disability need not – or should not, for that matter – be an obstacle in living the life, you want. It depends on the right conditions being established. Therefore, let us all fight against discrimination!”

Courtesy of Astrid Siemens Lorenzen

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Astrid Siemens Lorenzen from Copenhagen, Denmark. You can follow their journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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