Growing up in the 80’s & 90’s with a disability

Ahhh…the 1980’s & 1990’s.

Big hair, awesome music, ugly cars, video games, the introduction of the personal computer.

What a time to be alive!

This was the era I grew up in and it was an interesting time to have a disability.

In the 1970’s there were all kinds of laws that were passed in Canada and the United States ensuring that people with disabilities were included in society as much as possible, but there were still some bugs to iron out.

When I entered elementary school in 1983, the staff were generally supportive and helpful, with the exception of our school principal.

He seemed to be reading the new rules for integration too literally, so he was expecting things from me that just weren’t going to happen.

Physical Education….Yuck.

I’m just not built for running, jumping, playing baseball, volleyball, dodgeball and the list goes on. But the principal of our school felt that if I was going to be fully integrated into the school, that I also had to take Physical Education.

Thankfully most of my teachers allowed me to do a few easy things, and then I just sat and watched – which was my preference.

But, Track & Field Day…That was another story…

Every year this was the ONE day that I dreaded more than ANYTHING. I would rather undergo surgery than take part in Track & Field Day. I’m serious.

Most years I would take part in all the events because the Principal felt that in order to include me in the life of the school, that I should do EVERYTHING that all the other kids were doing which included high jump, long jump, 100 metre dash, 200 metre dash and so on.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist (or an elementary school Principal) to see that I wasn’t built for that type of thing…

So…each year, that day came and I participated. There were 2 other kids with disabilities that were in the same boat as me, so at least I wasn’t fully alone in my humiliation.

High jump? Are you kidding me? I can’t jump at all…so high jump is a stretch.

And the 200-metre “dash” – This one event was quite possibly the most traumatizing event of my entire life.

I took off as best I could and was able to keep up for about 20 feet and then I slowed down. After about 50 metres, I felt like dying.

My sister and her friends cheered me on, but all I could think of was “I want to die right now…”

It might seem trivial now since it was over 30 years ago and I’ve come to accept it and be healed from the hurt, embarrassment and so on, but I find that thinking about it still brings back emotions.

At the end of it all, I came in last in every single event…every year. I did receive a participation ribbon, which, if you’re wondering, DOES NOT make you feel better.

And then we devised a better, rather simple plan for Track & Field Day.

Grade 6, 7 and 8 on the very day that Track & Field Day happened, I was mysteriously stricken with an 8-hour bug that just didn’t make it feasible for me to attend school that day.

The Principal called wondering why I was not at school. Mom informed him of my sudden illness and then I watched TV for the rest of the day. 🙂

What about academics?

When I entered elementary school I was a pretty average kid academically. I could pull off B’s and C’s with zero effort, so that’s where I decided to stay. It’s not that I “couldn’t” – I had just done a mental calculation and determined that if 70% effort got me a decent passing grade, that was acceptable to me. 🙂

I wasn’t stellar at math, especially the type of math that I have yet to ever encounter in my everyday adult life.

At one point in time there was some debate about whether I should enter Special Education. They assumed that because I had a physical disability, that I must also have a developmental disability, therefore I should go to the “special” classroom.

All because I wasn’t great at math…


This whole situation was remedied by a few heated discussions between my Mom and the Principal.

Discussion over – Mom won! 🙂

I hope kids with disabilities today don’t have to go through some of this stuff because it was ridiculous.

Hello Nintendo!

In 1990 I had a surgery on my left foot to do a little reconstruction so I could walk on the bottom of my foot vs the side of it. It really wasn’t that bad, The hospital had free ice cream cups located down the hall, which inspired a young Jonny to get up try to get down the hall so he could enjoy his favourite dessert.

But, once I got home the days were pretty long.

Because my bedroom was upstairs and the upstairs didn’t include a bathroom, we decided it was best to spend most of my time on the couch. It was too hard to navigate the stairs with a heavy plaster cast.

As crappy as the situation was, it was made much better when my parents purchased a brand new Nintendo Entertainment System. It came with the Super Mario Brothers, the zapper gun and my favourite game at the time – Duck Hunt.

I spent HOURS playing that game and was able to beat Super Mario Brothers.

Another surgery 2 years later, but this time I had the 1992 Car Guide to read from cover to cover.

Family vacations were great!

Around age 12 I started to use a wheelchair when we went anywhere that would require too much walking – Wonderland, Disney World, Busch Gardens and so on.

The great thing about using a wheelchair in these venues is that it pretty much guaranteed that we could get to the front of the line.

At the time, most theme parks were moderately accessible except the rides, where only the emergency exits were accessible.

This meant that the general procedure when going on any ride or attraction (where people might be lined up for 1 hour or more) was to approach the front entrance and inform a staff member that we needed an accessible entrance.

At this point, they would usually guide us through a series of doors and hallways and then I would come out on the other side of the main line and wait there – starring at hundreds or thousands of people, all waiting to go on the same ride.

The ride would come to a stop and everyone would get out – but they wouldn’t let anyone else on yet…

Not until little Jonny was tightly fastened in his seat. Then the ride started up again and proceeded like normal.

On one occasion, it was a popular ride at Universal Studios. The people waiting in line waited well over one hour to get onto that ride. My Dad saw all the people waiting as we quickly and easily bypassed and just as I was getting out of the wheelchair to get onto the ride, my Dad leaned over and whispered: “Maybe try to look extra handicapped…”

He was just concerned that people might have thought we were scamming the system because technically I could get up and transfer myself onto the ride. 🙂

This was before the days of express passes at theme parks and it really was a time-saver. It wasn’t just me that got on fast – it was everyone that was with me. My parents and sister can thank me for helping us ride ALL the rides in just one day.

Of course, there were always people trying to take advantage of this system, because they knew that sometimes having a disability does have a few perks… 🙂

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