In the fourth grade, we learned how to line dance. The boys and girls faced each other at the center of the gym, reaching out to each other with sweaty hands, skipping and twirling down the line. It was in this line that I first understood how truly different I was from my peers — that I would never be able to dance as they could.
I was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at 3 years old, and have used a wheelchair for almost my whole life. Now at 21, the anger and fear that blossomed in my fourth-grade mind has only begun to die away. A few years ago, I was asked to explain my experience as a disabled person. Disability, I explained, is to inhabit a world parallel to another world populated by my family, friends and strangers, a world rife with experiences and opportunities in which I am unable to participate and enjoy. These worlds are separated by a thin, translucent divide that I would be able to pass through, if not for my wheelchair.
Two months ago I sat in a Paris apartment, face to face with an embodiment of that maddening barrier. Number one on my trip’s preparation list was to find accessible accommodations. Despite our planning, my friend Olivia and I spent our first 36 hours moving from what I thought would be an accessible Airbnb to a truly accessible hotel.
The morning of the move, Olivia took our bags to the hotel via taxi and I waited in the apartment. Three hours later, Olivia returned and I went to open the door to begin our Parisian vacation. To our horror, I discovered I could not open it. Unable to get close enough to leverage the stubborn doorknob, I was trapped inside. I stared at Olivia through the windows of the door, looking out at the world I could be enjoying, if not for a centimeter of ancient glass.
After 20 minutes, I became desperate. My palms were as sweaty as they had been during the fourth-grade dance. Olivia was equally distraught. The owner of the Airbnb was not responding. Neither was the landlady. It would have been a funny scenario had it not been such an awful experience. Somehow I was finally able to open the door and Olivia rushed in. Moments later, we left the apartment hastily.
In the following months, my mind returned to this memory, particularly to the desperation in Olivia’s eyes as she tried her hardest to remove the barrier between us. The divide between my world and hers was just as real to me as it was to her. As I stared up at Olivia through the door and she stared down, I realized that while I view the world from a unique vantage point, so does everyone else. Each one of us inhabits a distinct world that can often feel inescapable to us and appear inaccessible to others.
My world does not run parallel to one great world. Instead, it is part of an infinitely complex braid of individual lives, each as intricately woven as the next. Just as I navigate a world literally and figuratively not built for me, each person wades through a world that is differently difficult. And though we can never see the worlds of others exactly as they do, we can try and imagine other worlds as best we can. In doing so, we have the opportunity to bring distant perspectives much closer together. Occasionally, we have the opportunity to fuse disparate worlds.
When I arrived at Georgetown, I found myself again feeling like a fourth grader. As my floormates quickly formed into pairs to go to O’Donovan Hall without a roommate, saw myself looking down the line of happily dancing duos, embarrassed and unsure how to proceed. Yet as time passed, I stumbled into two communities — Mask and Bauble Dramatic Society and the Saxatones — that not only encouraged me to dance, but actively danced with me, gave me leadership roles, put me at center stage and most importantly, carried me into town houses.
Though I did not understand the immense importance of those acts then, I do now. In these moments of synchronized thought and action, in these moments of togetherness, the barriers between our worlds fall. I am lucky enough to be surrounded by people who will fight to bring me into their worlds and whose worlds I will fight to be a part of. But not everyone is so fortunate. With graduation approaching and the real world looming closer, we must fight to recognize, respect and open the door to access each other’s distinct worldview.
Nora Genster is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.
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