Jasmine Leiser, photographed by Ace Perez
From time to time, we like to invite guests to share their perspectives here in our magazine. Today’s guest blog is written by Jasmine Leiser, journalist, student, and artist at the University of California Berkeley.–Ed.
I have cerebral palsy, hyperhidrosis, asthma, and bipolar disorder. I have a morbid sense of humor and, for as long as I can remember, life’s been a bit of a joke that I’ve held at a distance.
I’ve always had a “manic” personality. I like making other people laugh; the life of the party, the butt of the joke. I was the chubby little kid in the grocery store who asked strangers in line what they were making for dinner — and whether they wanted to be my friend.
I’m 21 now and my life has been centered around the medical model of disability. The medical model treats disability as a series of symptoms to be addressed. The objective is mobility, autonomy, and independence.
The medical model treats disability as a series of symptoms to be addressed.
As a child I practiced walking up stairs, doing leg raises, and touching my toes. I played board games with my parents to develop the dexterity in my hands and fingers — delicate, little child hands with soft pink nails that learned how to play the guitar in preschool and gently turn the pages of hardback books.
When I was quite young, I remember lying on an padded blue therapy table that looked out over a large grassy lawn. I laid on my side, and lifted my left leg against the resistance of my therapist’s warm palm. This exercise was intended to strengthen my hip abductors. In physical therapy, the progress is gradual, see only after hundreds of daily repetitions. Physical therapy taught me patience. In therapy, I moved slowly and deliberately; practicing muscle control as I walked, strapped in and secure, on the treadmill and stepped up and down from a bench. Physical therapy taught me how to stretch and how to work with my body, not against it.
My parents have kind eyes and warm hearts; they are the best kind of advocate for a young woman with disabilities in the public school system. We set up a 504 and then IEP (Individual Education Plan). I did physical therapy during recess, and took extra time on tests as my sweaty hands ripped through sheets of lined paper. In kindergarten I wore leg braces, and twister straps that clipped onto my tennis shoes, over colorfully patterned leggings. I had round Harry Potter glasses, before they were cool, circa 2000. My parents were instrumental in making sure the school had accessible field trips. I didn’t understand that I was disabled. I wasn’t sure why I needed to wear some extra hardware.
Too often, physical disability is conflated with a lack of academic potential; challenging myself academically, from a young age, instilled confidence, and a strong sense of self.
When I was in 3rd grade, my mother asked for me to be evaluated for the Gifted And Talented Education program. The principal resisted. My mother insisted. I tested into the program. Too often, physical disability is conflated with a lack of academic potential; challenging myself academically, from a young age, instilled confidence, and a strong sense of self.
I read vicariously and I wrote my own stories in lined composition books, illustrated with magic marker. I never drew my braces. Instead, in all of my stories, I just pretended that I could fly. At 12, I was highly creative. I built myself an imaginary world and retreated into it for most of 6th grade.
In 7th grade, my Life Science teacher came to class with an anxiety hamster. It’s name was Philmore and it sat perched on her shoulder. I distinctly remember that she favored yellow Hawaiian T-shirts and that her classroom smelled like sulfur. She encouraged me, and my wheelchair-using friend, to leave the classroom during the segment on sexual education. Physically crippled bodies are often thought of as non-sexual.
When I was 17, I dated a straight boy who said that he liked my disabled body because he liked to hold my hand. This struck me in my gut, and I began to really question the caregiver, care receiver relationship in my partnership with an able-bodied adolescent.
It wasn’t until I came to Berkeley in the summer of 2013 that I realized that disability identity existed outside of the doctor’s office.
It wasn’t until I came to Berkeley in the summer of 2013 that I realized that disability identity existed outside of the doctor’s office. At 18, I became aware of the Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement. At 19, after a depressive downswing, I wrote a column on disability for my college newspaper. The intent was to demystify and breakdown the stigma.
At 19.5 years old, a stranger on the street tapped my shoulder from behind. It was rainy in Berkeley. I was listening to headphones and minding my own business. I was startled and turned around. She was older, maybe 45 or so. When I said “Can I help you?” she started crying and said that she was just so proud of me for getting out of the house. This stranger called me “her inspiration” because I, quite literally, walked outside. It was comically ridiculous.
At Cal, I study British history. Which essentially means that I navigate libraries with ease, and I always buy used copies of my books because I tattoo them with highlighter to the point where they just can’t be resold.
I am an historian, and historians like facts. I really detest guesswork; which, if we’re being honest here, is a lot of what psychiatry, psychology and mental health care is.
In the disability community, folks are often hung up on labels: what’s the next diagnosis, the next treatment option, the newest therapy. These labels come with stigma. This past February, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I immediately became afraid of the bipolar social trope. I was afraid that without a linear counter argument the stereotypes that I was socialized to believe about bipolar disorder would become inevitably become true.
Disability identity is about reclamation…. My crippled narrative is a story of resilience.
Disability identity is about reclamation. For me, this reclamation is appreciating my holistic self. Confronting my new disability diagnosis has been about letting go.
It’s about recognizing my internalized ableism. It’s about acknowledging the validity of my own, non-visible, disability identity. My crippled narrative is a story of resilience.
I’m ready for the next chapter.
Jasmine Leiser and Ace Perez are journalists, students, and artists at the University of California Berkeley. Jasmine and Ace are coffee-drinking, co-directors of the rad org Art for Consciousness. Contact Jasmine, email@example.com and Ace at firstname.lastname@example.org.