Do Disabilities Define You – Matthew Stewart

Helpless But Not Hopeless.

Matthew Stewart Schlafly was diagnosed with Spastic Diplegia Cerebral Palsy at the young and vulnerable age of two years old, a neurological disorder affecting movement and muscle coordination.  His parents knew it would be an uphill battle.

From the ages of seven to 15 years old, Matthew had four life-altering surgeries on his back, hips, legs, and feet.
In 2005, Matthew had a dorsal rhizotomy to remove the spasticity in his legs.  33.5% of his sensory-nerves were cut and from then on, most feeling from the waist down would be a thing of the past.  In addition, this procedure left a foot and a half long incision on his back.
In 2007, Matthew had two femoral osteotomies and bilateral foot reconstruction.  This procedure corrected his twisted leg bones and the surgeons’ fashioned new arches in both feet to stop what is known as rocker foot.  A total of eight incisions were left ranging from both hips down to both feet as well as screws, plates, and staples to support the recovering leg bones.
In 2009, Matthew’s hardware was taken out.
In 2012, Matthew had a tendon lengthening procedure to counteract his left foot from turning in after each step.
Without these valuable surgeries from Gillette Children’s Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, Matthew would have been permanently wheelchair-bound by the early ’20s.


Let’s hear his story from his own words.
The question of the day is, do disabilities define you? My name is Matthew Schlafly, I am 22 years old, and I am grateful to be diagnosed with Spastic Diplegia Cerebral Palsy. That is a weird thing to say, right?
Why would someone be grateful for having a physical disability from the waist down? I am different, I am unique, and I am me. In other words, a recipe for disaster. Spastic Diplegia Cerebral Palsy has been a blessing in disguise for me and hopefully one day you will change views about your own misfortunes in life.
CP helped me become more sympathetic to the mentally and physically challenged individuals. I spent a large portion of my life feeling sorry for myself. I am simply disabled. Growing up, I always got picked last on the team, my mile time was triple the average, and I am not athletic.
All these negative feelings kept me from enjoying life for what it is. Everyone has struggles of their own, even when it is invisible to the naked eye. I had four life changing surgeries and they all took place at Gillette Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota over the span of eight years.
A distance of 520 miles one-way, travelled too many times. In the hospital, I saw many kids who could not even walk and they had the biggest smiles on their faces. Why was I, an abled-walking individual, so upset? That question has been with me for a large portion of my life until I answered it not too long ago. I was upset because I limited myself.
My brain told me I was a monster, incapable of blending in with the rest of humanity. Once I answered that difficult question, I laughed. I am a beautiful human being and so is everyone on this earth, regardless of their mental or physical disabilities. What usually happens in elementary school, middle school, high school, or college?
People form cliques. Depending on interests, age, physique, and so forth. Imagine silos on a farm. One silo contains this product. Another silo contains that product.
They will never come in contact with one another. Cliques form silos all over the world. Regardless of the differences, we should all come together. That guy whom you thought was perfect, has that going on in his life? Or that girl, as perfect as she may be, has a disease that will not go away?
You will be surprised how quickly we judge until we get to know someone. Growing up, I had issues I needed to sort out and could not focus on helping others at the time. But, I am only 22. I am young. I am still learning. Spending a large chunk of my life angry about my own physical disability opened up my eyes to other, much worse disabilities.
Whether you have autism or a deformity in your legs and feet, everyone has a story and if you shut them out of existence, you will never know what they are truly going through on a daily basis.
CP helped me become more confident because I have to be. I am a homebody. If I had the option of hanging with friends or staying home, I would choose the latter 10 out of 10 times. It would take a miracle for me to go out in public. The sad part is, I felt like I deserved to be shut out of existence.
That is simply not true. Recently, my coworker invited me to happy hour at Dave and Buster’s with a large group of people. The commercials are crazy, hectic, and something I do not fit in with. As I drove there, uneasiness set in. I said to myself, ​look, Matthew, you are being a wimp. Just go, if you do not enjoy it, leave. It is that simple. At least you tried it​.
Despite being nervous to no end, I decided not to have food or beverages. I wanted to see if this could be done without a natural coping mechanism to ease anxiety. At the table, I wondered if they were going to ask me why I walk so weird or what is the deal with my legs. From expressing a few words to making people laugh hysterically by the end of the night, I forgot I even had a physical disability.
Before I knew it, they invited me to attend the next happy hour because I am quote, “hilarious and interesting”, as one lady put it. This was an accomplishment for me. Driving home, I reflected on the night. They never asked me why I walk the way I do. It was all in my head. CP does not make me an alienated individual after all.
I imagine myself being the popular, physically-abled, and confident kid quite often. Yes, that would be amazing, but I may not know how much I am taking me, would be, natural confidence for granted. Honestly, I rather work on something and respect the confidence I build up over time than not know what that wholesome feeling is like.
CP helped me slow down, reflect on myself, and develop who I truly want to become. Being diagnosed at the young age of two, my parents knew I would have a different life growing up. Between first through sixth grade, I had been to the principal’s office two to three times a week.
My principal at the time was so influential on me at such a young, fundamental age. She did not give up on me, she did not kick me out of the school, and she prepared me as much as possible by the time I graduated elementary school. A rotation set up between my principal, guidance counsellor, and teachers, I slowly became familiar with my voice and less familiar with my fists.
I once used these fists, because I had trauma, pain, and thought “no one could understand.” I wanted to hurt you before you had the slightest chance of hurting me. By the time I graduated middle and high school, I completed six consecutive years as a wrestler, earned my varsity letter senior year, and went to the principal’s only a handful of times. I had countless arguments with my parents regarding wrestling.
It is too difficult for someone like me. No one on the wrestling team had a physical disability and it seemed unfair to me why I had to work much harder than the rest of the kids. Recently, I understood why my father enrolled me in wrestling. He would say over and over, “If you can get through the hardest sport known to man, you can get through anything.” He was right. Little did I know at the time, wrestling became an
immense outlet for me. Whether I won or lost, I simply participated in a ruthless sport and did not give up. This made my parents extremely proud. When I won my final high school wrestling match, my coach pulled me to the side and said, “You are my hero and a symbol for hard work.” By the time I graduated from college, I went to the office zero times.
Throughout my extensive journey, it took immense help from many people. I thought it would never get better. CP genuinely made this a day by day process. I worked every single day and I continue to do so because of my physical disability and I could not be more grateful. This is exactly what I want to do with my life.
I want to help all ages grow and inspire them to shoot their shot. From trauma to success, it takes one step at a time. Life is not a walk in the park. I would know. There will be countless roadblocks along the way. But if I could get through them, so can you. Stop limiting yourselves and start believing in you. My name is Matthew Schlafly, I am 22 years old, and I am forever grateful to be diagnosed with Spastic Diplegia Cerebral Palsy.

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