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April 24, 2010

disABILITY: You can’t live your life according to the labels placed upon you

Kate Pavlacka
Contributing Writer

— I sit down to read an article of interest online and my nervous system trips over itself. I try to hear my teachers lecturing at school, but my nervous system hums and crackles while the words drip through my mind like thick muddy drops. The information isn’t fully processed.

That’s how it used to be.

Now I combine kinesthetic learning, visualization and lying on a big feather pillow on the floor during a lecture. Solid pressure from the floor on my front or back, oddly enough, helps me process auditory input.

Hi, this month’s article is being brought to you by me, all from the lovely little city of Ithaca and the Finger Lakes School of Massage.

You are well aware of my blindness, but what you don’t know is that I have another challenge. That challenge is called sensory integration dysfunction.

While I don’t believe I’m dysfunctional in any way beyond the average dysfunction of all humankind, I do have some barriers to overcome.

Sensory integration dysfunction is a new diagnosis for me, although it is believed to be something that has had an impact on me since childhood.

Now that I’m back in school, working toward becoming a licensed massage therapist, I have become very self-aware. I know what my struggles are; it’s just a matter of using my creative mind to find ways around my difficulties. Anything I do to help myself is a step out of this label of dysfunction and into personal empowerment.

I chose the Finger Lakes School of Massage because it makes the science part of the curriculum very hands-on. Pipe cleaners, glitter, construction paper, clay, glue and many other materials like that are common sights around our classroom. The other nice thing is that my teachers don’t mind if I lie on the floor while they talk. We have bean bags, therapy balls and other comfortable options in our room. There are some chairs and tables, but we aren’t obligated to sit at them.

Back to this thing called sensory integration dysfunction, though. I imagine you probably didn’t know I dealt with this.

It is a hidden disability. Nobody can see that I have it but I compensate for it daily.

You may notice something about me that is different, but since my disability is hidden, it could be easy to make a wrong assumption about me.

Aside from what I described at the very beginning, there are other things that deal with.

I have trouble in large groups of people because my nervous system is racing and buzzing all on its own. With the extra racing, buzzing and noise happening all around me, my sensory system gets overloaded and causes me to feel a lot of stress. I usually like to interact in small groups of three people or fewer. I don’t go out of my way to run away from large groups of people when I find myself in one, but there are times I choose not to attend an event in the first place if the point is to just go to be social with many people and in an active and noisy setting. Some might mistranslate all of this as “Kate is just anti-social.”

There are times when emotions and energy build up in my system because I don’t always make a connection or immediate connection with the trigger and the effect of that trigger on my nervous system. I regularly need to find a physical outlet for all that energy that has bunched up inside of me. Sometimes I fidget when there is no other way of letting off energy in the moment.

This may give people the idea that I’m a nervous person or perhaps that I’m just not listening to them.

I have trouble organizing a series of tasks in my head just as I have trouble organizing and synthesizing most data in my head. If I don’t write things down and make a plan, then I’m left to this chaotic method of brain organization and it’s very easy for me to forget something in the process or get completely sidetracked. People might notice my scattered nature when I go without a list or a plan and assume I have ADHD or that I’m generally just an irresponsible person. I’m neither of those things.

So I have a new label, but I make my life what I want it to be. And for me, it is very important that I not see myself as a piece of medical jargon or limit myself to the stereotypical “can do’s” or “can’t do’s” of my given disability. I’m in charge and I make the rules about what I am capable of.

Kate Pavlacka, a graduate of the State University College at Oneonta, has been totally blind for about a dozen years. Her columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/disability.