​Real-Life Stories of a Disabled Mom: Labels Identity, & Advocacy

Posted by Kieran O'Brien Kern in Life After Paralysis on January 18, 2022 # Lifestyle

Kieran and her family sitting on a bench together on EasterNerd, disabled, special, cripple, whether you’re the girl in the wheelchair or anyone for that matter, there has been or will be a time where someone affixes a label to you and ascribes meaning to that label in order to limit you. Why would another person limit you? Because they’re threatened by you or comfortable with you in one specific role. Maybe because they’re uncomfortable with themselves, the possibilities are endless. But the outcomes can be damaging.

One of the worst adages you can share or apply is: Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But Words Will Never Hurt Me. Really? As someone who was bullied in school and a writer, I can tell you words have the power to hurt. But on the flip side, we also can redefine these labels to create our identities.

I started to embrace my identities both as a disabled person and as a nerd when I lived abroad. Aside from preschool, I was my own peer group for the majority of my life. Living in Ireland was the first time since then that I was around other disabled people regularly. It didn’t feel like I had a giant red arrow over my wheelchair at all times going direct pity here. Actually, whether it was just the culture or exposure to disabled people, I found nondisabled people more apt to find solutions to include me than here. Simultaneously, I remember being at a club meeting for the first time and being asked by an established member, “Are you a nerd, geek, or freak?” I was thrown for a second, but realized in that context they were just trying to get to know me. I wrote comedy, loved to act, and read; I replied that I was a word nerd during that time. These moments helped shape my identity and were jumping-off points for my confidence.

As parents, we have an ongoing conversation with our kids about labels almost always parlays into a discussion about identity. I identify myself as a proud nerd (Sorry, Fonzie, your definition is a little too twentieth century). Being a nerd means I’m super smart and passionate about what I love to do, including writing, books, fashion, accessibility, and inclusion. The most important part of my definition is that I stay true to myself. Friends should appreciate the real person because it’s amazing. While we turn words into confidence builders, we also reinforce that staying true to yourself also means advocating for yourself. Whether with friends, in the classroom, or on the playground, aggressive words or actions that make you feel unsafe or nervous means you should tell someone who makes you feel safe, like your parent or teacher, counselor, or the principal. We also reinforce that we believe them and are on their side. Additionally, practicing and modeling advocacy is key for equipping them with tools to succeed.

My girls also tend to have a front-row seat to me advocating for them and me.

When met with aggression, I pick my battles with two questions. 1. Is it overtly aggressive and insulting? 2. Will my intercession make a difference? Recently when trying to enjoy a festive lunch with my family and my sister, we had walked and rolled up and down this street, looking for a wait time less than 45 minutes—enough time to be human popsicles and found ourselves in front of a person whose title was hostess. In fairness, she looked harried, and my husband politely inquired about a table for five. She glared across at me and said, “IS THAT WITH YOUR PARTY?” Remembering that my impressionable daughters were nearby, I took a deep and in my best Elle Woods meeting, Warner at Harvard Law voice said, “Do you mean my candy apple red scooter-style wheelchair or the disabled and proud woman using it? Because it’s the latter, I am the party.” Then we left and found a much more pleasant establishment.

I’m Kieran Bridget O’Brien Kern. Power is literally my middle name. When my husband and I became engaged, we agreed that parenthood was a two-person job. I am the primary caregiver to our children, but we all work as a team. From infancy onward, we have adapted and grown together. Every day there is a new challenge. Every new challenge is an opportunity to learn more about them and myself.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.