Perceptions’ Power to Influence Self-Image

Zach Head Shot June 2013

Terminology found in mainstream news stories about disabilities encompasses the tone behind generally accepted disability perceptions. Words like “sufferer” and “victim” indicate negativity. To those in the disability community who don’t know better, such language can lead to “poor me” mentalities. Personally I used to maintain said attitude.

Hi! I’m Zachary Fenell, an author and freelance writer living with mild cerebral palsy (CP). In my teen memoir Off Balanced, I document my journey from loathing my disability to embracing my disability, a journey that happened to occur during adolescence.

Loathing feels like a strong word but I still think the term proves justified. Growing up I didn’t discuss my disability. Embarrassed, I tried hiding my CP. My disability made me feel inferior to my peers. Why though? The reasoning always came back to being different. Inside my head I deemed different to mean wrong.

Again I ask, why though? Honestly I never fully explored this question, not even while writing Off Balanced. Today that changes. Reflecting back, I theorize maybe the mainstream perceptions about disabilities subconsciously created my self-sabotage.

Sure, as a kid I didn’t pay very much attention to the news. However I wonder where my parents conceived their perceptions about disabilities? Did the popular negative disability perceptions influence their parenting efforts with me? I think yes.


For instance, when I moved from elementary school to upper elementary school my parents vocalized concerns over me using the stairs at school. With a rail I can safely navigate staircases but Mom and Dad held anxiety regarding the issue. Therefore, accommodations placed in my IEP (individual education plan) aimed to minimize any danger steps could impose.

Screen Shot 2014-01-18 at 16.29.05Every detail seemed carefully worked out. Seeking to keep my trips on the stairs to the lowest number possible, I received placement on whatever team happened to call the second floor home. Given the cafeteria also remained located on the second floor, going to lunch didn’t require ascending or descending stairs.

Additionally the second floor offered an exit directly to the playground on top the school’s hilly landscape. This turned stairs into a non-issue for fire drills. Then I also left the classroom five minutes early at day’s end so I could descend the steps and go out to the bus without fear that a mob comprising excited children might stampede over me on the steps.

Penning Off Balanced I came to appreciate what I previously considered my parents’ overprotective attitudes. While setting forth to capture their perspectives, I realized Mom and Dad possessed nothing but the best intentions. In the long-term an individual can’t ask for better than parents who care.

The true conflict lay in how society views disability. No, I can’t say with 100% certainty my parents felt extra pressure to protect me because the mainstream media refers to people with CP as “victims” and “sufferers.” Yet I know surely such word choice didn’t help.

Bottom line, something apparently small like terminology carries incredible impact. Language indicates attitude. Attitude influences behavior. Behavior can shape self-image. If able-bodied society stops viewing people with disabilities for their challenges and focus on their abilities, I believe disability related embarrassment, inferiority, and other negative sentiments can become less prevalent internally within the disability community.

Off Balanced Book CoverZachary’s memoir Off Balanced (available on the Kindle and Nook)



What do you think? Sound off by commenting below.

Personal experience with his own disability, cerebral palsy (CP), drives freelance scribe and author Zachary to utilize writing and social media for promoting disability awareness. Zachary’s memoir Off Balanced (available on the Kindle and Nook) explores how his CP affected him socially throughout adolescence. To learn more about Zachary, visit




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