by RJ Nealon

(Editor’s Note: RJ is a member of the Board of The Arc of Alabama, having accepted the Self-Advocate position. This is the first of a series of posts he has agreed to do for us, providing a self-advocate’s perspective on a variety of issues, and it will serve as his introduction to you. Enjoy.)

I have Cerebral Palsy. Does that define who I am? Ask yourself that, but before you come up with answers, there are things I want to share, and maybe after reading this, you will be more aware of what CP is, how it affects the body, and what limitations it puts on people.

CP is a condition marked by poor muscle coordination and other disabilities. Typically, Cerebral Palsy is caused by brain damage before or after birth. For myself, I had a stroke due to my mom hemorrhaging that caused my CP.

The disability affects people differently; not one case is the same. Some people use a wheelchair, some people have to walk with assistance, and in my case; it affects my right side. I have minimum use in my right arm, and my leg is also affected.

There are things I can’t do, but I make one promise–and a big one–I will try everything at least once. If I fail, I fail. I can say I tried, and that’s better than not trying at all.

A common misconception of Cerebral Palsy is that the individual can’t play sports or be involved in physical activity. I am here to say that’s false for me. All my life I have played sports, and if it weren’t for sports, I wouldn’t be where I am in my life. I wouldn’t be at the University of Alabama. I have participated in football, basketball, baseball, soccer, swimming, surfing, skydiving, mixed martial arts and my most achieving sport–motocross.

When I first gained interest in the sport, everyone said I couldn’t do it because the throttle’s on the right side, that everything I had to do would confuse me too much. I am proud to say I proved all those people wrong.

One day in the summer back in middle school, I was watching the Summer X games, and at this time I was riding a four-wheeler, while my younger brother was riding a Yamaha TTR-110. One of my favorite athletes at the time was Travis Pastrana. Watching him got me thinking, ‘I can do this; it ain’t nothing but a thing.’

I went outside and got on the dirt bike, hit the throttle, and popped a wheelie. If anyone saw it, it was probably the funniest thing. I was on my back, and the bike kept going. However, I kept getting up, and by the end of the day, I was riding the bike.

Not long after, we had a mini motocross track in the backyard. I was hitting the jumps, getting better and better each day. Now, I still rode the four-wheeler, but my heart was with the dirt bike.

Fast forward a few years; I am riding a KTM sx-f 250, one of the fastest bikes on the market.

The feeling I get when I ride that bike is one I can’t explain. When I pop the clutch, hit the throttle, and the torque kicks in, it’s the greatest feeling in the world. For that moment, feeling the breeze hit you, the dirt kicks up, and having my buddies riding next to me, I don’t have CP, I am conquering CP.

Hitting the front brake, and hitting the throttle coming in and out of turns is incredible.

The point I’m getting to is Cerebral Palsy doesn’t limit people, people limit themselves because of Cerebral Palsy, but I never had that mindset.

I am so thankful to have Cerebral Palsy. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have this opportunity to share my story. I wouldn’t be as strong as I am. And, I wouldn’t be able to inspire others to live their dreams. When I was younger, I wished I didn’t have CP, but now I couldn’t imagine life without it.

Imagine, being underestimated in everything you wanted to do, whether it be sports, school, or everyday activities. The feeling is the worst.

Now in 2019, I sit here at the University of Alabama, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful schools in the country and ask myself, how did I end up here? The beautiful view of Bryant-Denny Stadium on University Blvd., Denny-Chimes just a couple hundred yards away sitting on the quad and just across the street the president’s mansion. The sight takes your breath away.

Growing up with a disability I learned two things pretty fast. One, you’re not going to be given everything easy. and two, sometimes you aren’t going to get your way, and you’ll have to work harder than your opponent in whatever it may be.

I realized sports would be huge in growing up, but I also knew it wouldn’t be easy. I was a go-getter, I tried every sport I could, and I made no excuses. If I couldn’t do something, I found a way to do it. I knew my disability would give me obstacles and I took that challenge.

To me, nothing is impossible. Impossible just means, I’m possible.

I have been an athlete for as long as I can remember, anywhere from competitive travel teams to Special Olympics, even a short stint having goals of the Paralympics, I have accomplished many milestones, but above all I proved myself.

I have been told I couldn’t play baseball because I play with one arm, I played in the Cal Ripken Jr. league, a league I had to try out for. I was told martial arts would be too hard to learn; I hold a Blue Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and have competed in some of the best tournaments the sport offers. What I’m trying to say is, don’t let others tell you what you can and can’t do.

I was pushed hard as hell a kid, and still, am to this day because people know I have to work harder to achieve my goals. Not just in sports, but in life.

In high school I had seizures, and I’ll tell you, they controlled my life for a long time. One thing stayed consistent through that period, sports. Sports kept me going in December 2010 when I was hospitalized at Johns Hopkins for my seizures. I remember one thing; the Dallas Cowboys beat the New Orleans Saints. Out of everything that happened during those ten days, I remember that game.

It’s crazy how much of an impact sports can have on an individual. Sports create emotion that can only happen through that moment. Sports don’t care if you have a disability. You can play or you can’t. The objective of competition is to win, to be the best, and win championships. When I lost or wasn’t as good as the other players I worked harder, I learned how to modify things to be an advantage. I hate losing more than I love to win and because of that, I would be outside in my driveway with the spotlight on late at night shooting hoops. I would stay after wrestling class, to get one-on-one work in with my coach or one of the professional fighters. I studied the game to be the best.

Throughout my life, I’ve had to overcome obstacles with my CP, and I’ve had to ignore the negative comments and judgment. When people told me, I would never go to college; I had to prove them wrong. When they told me, I would never make it in sports; I had to prove them wrong. It is something I have become accustomed to and something I will have to do for the rest of my life, but I wouldn’t trade that for the world.

Everyone has a story; everyone’s story has rough patches; I accept mine and make the best of those moments. I do that through sports. Competition has the power to bring people together, to break barriers, and to create voices for those who may not have one outside of sports. People create memories in sports; for that moment in time, nothing else matters.

As life continues, so will my story. There will be a time I’ll hang up the sports gear, but one thing will stay the same, and that’s the way sports shaped how I live, think, and carry myself as an individual.

There are mornings that I will sit on the steps of Gorgas Library at the University of Alabama, and I’ll look out over Denny-Chimes and reminisce about all the obstacles I have overcome, all the people that said I couldn’t do something, and all the times I have failed at something and had to do it over.

At that moment, I think to myself, how did I make it here? The answer is simple, I made the impossible possible.

After reading this, does Cerebral Palsy define me? I am athletic, smart and hardworking. I am the same as everyone else but with a few tweaks. Does not each person have their tweaks? Are these tweaks not what give us our individuality? I mean, what defines a person? Is it where they are from, or what obstacles they’ve gone through or is it their character. To me, it’s who you are as a person.

So, does Cerebral Palsy define me? I’ll let you answer that!