Listen up: If you’re a teenager with a disability, 25-year-old Zachary Fenell of Cleveland, Ohio, has a special message for you.
“For one, I was born with a mild case of cerebral palsy,” said Fenell in a telephone interview, referring to a lifelong condition affecting 750,000 Americans and their ability to control muscle movement. “I walk okay, but have a slight limp. Balance is an issue. To go up and down stairs safely now, which most people take for granted, I have to hold the railing. And because my hand-eye coordination and right leg strength isn’t the greatest, I don’t drive a car.”
In addition, when Fenell was 13, his mother noticed he was becoming hunchback and soon a physician diagnosed him with Scheuermann’s disease. The subsequent corrective operation straightening his back with a rod inadvertently bruised his spine and caused a temporary right leg paralysis. After four months, he was still using a cane to walk and later never fully recovered strength in that leg.
“So I started high school using a cane,” he said. “Growing up, I had tried hiding my cerebral palsy from classmates because I was embarrassed. I just wanted to fit in and be like everyone else and cerebral palsy prevented me from fitting in. It was an awkward dynamic, and then I had to show up freshman year with the cane.”
After graduating, he realized he had been in school 12 years and had given his classmates few opportunities to know him because of his feelings of embarrassment about his disability. So he changed his tune in college.
“I looked at college as a second chance to be open about it,” he said. “My first year, I was actively looking for openings to disclose my disability.” To his surprise, Notre Dame College (Oh.) classmates and professors accepted and encouraged him, which helped Fenell develop a positive attitude and outlook.
Today, he calls his disability an asset. Unable to be play sports, Zenell was sports editor of his high school paper, wrote for his college paper, and now freelance writes music reviews, disability-related Internet content, and Cleveland Indians fan information. He also has authored, “Off Balanced,” a book to help teens with disabilities who are struggling to fit in.
He advised teens: “Don’t be embarrassed. Embrace your disability. And go find people who are experiencing what you are experiencing.”