I walked into the room, fifteen minutes late, and found my seat in the back of the auditorium. It wasn’t the best way to start off the semester as an exchange student, but what can I say, it’s a big campus and I didn’t exactly have a map.
Sitting in front of me were two girls talking to each other in a language I could not understand. I guess I should’ve expected that considering I was in an induction ceremony for exchange students from all over the world. One of the girls, however, caught my attention. She was in a wheelchair, and I couldn’t help but wonder why. Thinking back on what a stressful journey it was for me to flip my life upside down and move to a different part of the world, I couldn’t begin to imagine what it was like for her.
As the week went on, we met through mutual friends. At first I didn’t know how to acknowledge the elephant in the room without making her (or myself) feel uncomfortable. But there was something about her that intrigued me. Maybe it was her positivity or the way she talked about how awesome her life is back home. Or maybe it was her openness to talk about her disability and experiences.
Through more and more encounters with her, I was able to get to know her more. Her name is Ann-Sofie Christensen, and she gets annoyed when people spell her name with a “ph,” a mistake that happens very often. She is from Denmark where she studies business communication.
Ann-Sofie, 23, has a disability clinically termed as Muscular Dystrophy Type 2 i. “Basically, it’s a slowly progressing disability that impacts my ability, or my body’s disability, to build muscles.” she told me when I finally worked up the courage to ask her.
She found out she has this disability when she was just three years old, but she claims to have had a very normal childhood. “When I was little I was able to walk around like everyone else, but when I started to hit puberty and grow the disability began to show.” At age 19, Ann-Sofie made the decision to sit in a wheelchair because she was using a lot of her time and energy on walking, getting up, running, and other activities that required using her legs. “I wanted to experience life so I decided to permanently sit in a wheelchair.”
Because of her positive outlook, Ann-Sofie had a lot more positives to share with me than negatives in regards to having a disability. The bond she describes between her and her family and friends is one she knows she wouldn’t have, had she been born without a disability. She also has a close network back home with whom she attends concerts, charities, and festivals. I couldn’t wrap my mind around how someone with all the reasons in the world to be so angry could be so optimistic.
“I used to see the cup half empty, I really did. But when I started to realize how much it influenced my friends and my family, especially my mom, I started to change my mind because I wanted to fight for them. I started trying to see the cup half full instead of the other way around because I had nothing else to do at that point. If you look at it half empty you don't get that much enjoyment out of life, and I love enjoying life. You need to keep your spirits up because you can't change the cards you’ve been dealt, you can only change the way you want to play the game.”
Ann-Sofie had a lot of changes to adapt to while growing up, a lot of lessons that had to be learned the hard way, but she fully credits her disability for her strength, the way her character is built, and the “frame of mind that’s been formed due to the disability.” When asked if she would change the fact that she has a disability, she looked at me without hesitating and said, “I love my life, I really do, and I wouldn’t have had it this way if it wasn’t for the disability. Of course, sometimes there are days that suck and there are places I can't go and that sucks, but I just don't see it that way anymore.” For someone who at thirteen couldn’t even pronounce her disability without crying, Ann-Sofie showed me a completely new level of what it is to be strong.
Fast-forward twenty years after finding out about her disability, Ann-Sofie decided she was going to study abroad. Initially, after taking an English class back in Denmark, she wanted to live out the American Dream through her college experience. Yay for her, she got into a school in Louisiana where she was sure she would have the time of her life. However, a month and a half before she had to leave, she received a letter saying she couldn’t attend that school anymore.
“They said it was because of my grades, but I'm pretty sure that’s not the real reason. I think it was because of the fact that they couldn’t make the university accessible enough for me. When I got the news I was crushed, but as the days and weeks and months went further it was like, it became a goal, I had to do it, like a thing on my bucket list, because they shouldn’t be able to tell me what I’m able to do and what I’m not able to do. It was stubbornness mostly, but I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.”
And that’s how Ann-Sofie ended up in Glasgow.
She told me that one of her main objectives while studying abroad is to get out of her comfort zone. In Denmark, she knows she can rely on her friends and family who know her better than anyone, but in Glasgow she is learning how to ask people for help and not feel like a burden. She is learning how to say ‘hello’ to people even if she may not like to and being the center of attention is uncomfortable to her. Most importantly, she is teaching her new friends a whole new meaning to the word “able.”
“I wanted the experience, and I wanted something I could look back at and say ‘I did that by myself, I literally did that by myself’ and be proud of it.”