The first thing that pops out when you meet Caley is love. Absolute and unconditional love. She loves deeply, and she shows that love with the bear hugs she is renowned for. Caley has cycled through many types of hugs throughout her life – most memorably, the tackle hugs of her childhood – but these, her bear hugs, have been the most consistent. When people see her approaching with one, they immediately shout “Go easy on me!” But the hugs, though tight, are never painful. They’re her way of showing her love for others, and that’s the best gesture of them all. Even virtually she shows her love – as with all those she knows, I often check my phone and look down to find a text that says simply “random hugs!”
The other feature of Caley’s that I associate most strongly with her is her passion for helping others. This is the girl who goes out and feeds the homeless most every week that she can manage it. They sense her love for them, as for everyone, and the fact that she, too, is often underestimated by society, and this enables her to get closer than most. She tells me about the friends she makes there – the man who she’s started an informal book club with, the woman who just can’t find a job, the little one she plays with who, though a toddler, is already a ladies’ man and will “fall” into the lap of all the girls. Her passion for helping doesn’t just express itself in volunteering. Caley is the girl who frets about her friends who are sick, is always available with a phone call to any friends she knows are struggling, calls me to ask how best she can help a friend going through a hard time.
Behind that passion for others and love for the world lies a fierce belief in justice. Whenever I hear someone expressing racist/sexist/ableist/homophobic/etc thoughts I immediately tell her she can leave the room. This is a gesture of benefit to both the person expressing those thoughts and, more importantly, to Caley. From experience, I know she’s unlikely to change their minds, and likely to emerge deeply hurt by their words. Moreover, no matter her relationship with the person, I know she’ll plow straight through it in an effort to get at those offending words. Caley sees wrongness in the world and is immediately drawn to fix it, no matter the obstacles in her way. The rest of us see the world in shades of grey – Caley sees grey, too, but when it comes to injustice she sees things as black and white. And personally, I think she’s got it more right than we do. There are very few things in the world that Caley truly hates – injustice is one of them.
And to those people who say that love and helping others and beliefs in justice won’t get you a job – well, I say to you that she’s a person, not a walking resume. I also say to you: presume competence. Because Caley has achieved a whole heck of a lot more than anyone ever thought possible, and the biggest barriers in her way haven’t been her disabilities, but the low expectations of others. Caley is graduating college this year, with a major in Public Health and a minor in Homeland Security and Natural Disasters. She fought tooth and nail for this degree, pushed through dysgraphia to write essays, lived away from home for the first time despite the lack of a safety net, fought anxiety to go to class, battled to make her ‘spoons’ get her through class, and disproved the disdaining views of others yet again. Caley is the toughest, strongest person I know, not by virtue of disability – this is not intended to be ‘inspiration porn’ – but by virtue of how she has battled the low expectations of others and a society often hostile to neurodiverse people at every turn.
Though it breaks my heart to say this, she’s fought against these expectations since pre-K, and I know that as she moves out into the world on her own, she will have to continue to fight. But she has battled through this far and I know she can continue to do so. That, to me, speaks more about her than any resume ever could. Caley’s going to try to go into AmeriCorps after she graduates this year, an opportunity that combines all of her passions into one, and though it won’t be easy, I know she’s up for the challenge.
None of this is to say that Caley does not struggle or that she’s perfect. She’s human, and she does have a disability which is a huge barrier for her to overcome in our society. And, yes, Caley does require help and support. But she is far, FAR more than her weaknesses. She is passionate. She is strong. She is competent. And THAT is what you should see when you look at her.
[Image is a picture of Caley at about age two in a toy car holding the keys she used to carry with her everywhere. Driving is another one of those things that people have said she'll never be able to do. Caley's determined to learn, though, and I know this is yet another area in which she will blow society's low expectations away.]