My name is Tracy Williams. I live with mild-moderate cerebral palsy and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Cerebral palsy affects my lower extremities, fine motor skills and my rate of speech, but not my cognitive ability. Due to four orthopedic procedures during my childhood, I did stop growing at the age of twelve. This is why I have had to become comfortable with being compact. Living with a disability has been complicated over the years. I never felt like I fit in as a child. It was not easy for two reasons. I started school in a preschool and kindergarten that was specifically for kids who had disabilities. I was also mocked by some of my cousins and their parents, who were not comfortable with a niece or cousin who reached milestones at a different rate compared with typical society. It is hard to have much deep connection with family who are spread all over the world. But I have expanded my family with genuinely supportive friends as well as having incredibly supportive relatives in Wisconsin, who my parents and I visit every one or two years. I will always receive unconditional love from my uncle who lives quite near us in our hometown.
I am so blessed also to have a surrogate family. I was welcomed into the large extend family of my former nanny and her husband when I was still a cautious and shy little girl. She has since passed away, but my parents and I still are invited to their celebrations of significant family moments. Now, I am genuinely welcomed by their entire family, siblings, adult children, spouses and the next generation. As a young girl, I was encouraged by church leaders at Bethel Lutheran Church, to attend summer camp at Lutherdale Camp, near Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where I was included in activities, even though camp counselors had to find ways to adapt the activities to my abilities. I was also invited to attend an adaptive sports camp at University Wisconsin- Whitewater where we all participated in water sports, wheelchair dance, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair self-defense, and other exciting activities.
As I entered my teen years, it felt that it became harder to feel accepted, because high school teachers and peers would mistaken me for being mentally challenged because of the rate of my speech, which was affected by the original brain injury that caused my cerebral palsy. I am forever grateful for my closest childhood friend and his family for encouraging me to join their church’s youth group. The incredible group of leaders and peers taught me that I was much more than the challenges life had thrown me. I could be of service to others even though society may see disabled people as weak and helpless. I learned this lesson through serving at local food pantries and other community events. I also was taught I was much more than my disability because of adventurous overnight trips I was invited on with this youth group. I was able to challenge old thoughts about my personal physical strength, by going down a zipline in an adaptive way with the encouragement of my peers and the youth groups as well as going up a climbing wall in an adaptive way due to the creativity and inclusivity of the retreat center leaders. The more often that society is creative, welcoming and inclusive, the more often children, teens and young adults with disabilities do not feel excluded.
At Dominican University, my alma mater, I felt welcomed by a close group of friends and mentors who helped me feel protected and accepted, I was extremely grateful for their unconditional acceptance of me since outside of the academic environment I continued to have to manage the challenges of negative reactions. In a sense I understand it. I came across in social situations as too weak, too anxious and I seemed to be too short to accomplish some of the big personal original goals I had of becoming a registered dietitian.
At school, I began to realize my experience could be useful to others instead of self-focused on my own actual and perceived limitations. For example, I was encouraged to offer some ideas on how staff could make the college more accessible to future generations of students with various disabilities who had various academic or physical needs in appropriate accommodations. I was also asked to challenge social norms were had about social justice in the classroom. Social justice was such a crucial pillar to the style of education available at Dominican University. Support from classmates and professors helped me accept that despite my quiet disposition. I had the strength and perseverance to advocate for what is always right for others. I particularly loved, getting involved by tutoring with the University Ministry program at local elementary schools, and serving at homeless shelters or food pantries in the city of Chicago. One of the other big lessons I learned at Dominican University was that even though the campus may not have been completely accessible to me getting around by myself with my forearm crutches, Segway or a push wheelchair, I always had the opportunities to build friendships with new people to help me solve my problems related to accessibility.
I now know that I can keep my quiet persistence and still accomplish incredible goals and inspire others by advocating for others with disabilities trying to live healthier lifestyles by doing menu review for a Chicago nonprofit, speaking engagements and nutrition freelance writing. I also have a long-range project of putting together a book to inspire peers with disabilities to live a healthier and happier lifestyle since I did graduate Dominican University with my degree in Nutrition and Dietetics. I am finally fully confident in my physical strength, personality traits, chronic conditions and my physical height and I have realized that most people new to my story will genuinely accept me no matter my physical abilities. It is never my fault that people may not accept me, but I believe it is their loss that they do not want to know me past my disability. I want to be known for my creativity, persistence, and my genuine kindness in my professional and personal life.
I want to inspire others to live their best lives.