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Ana Espada

Co-Director & Education Advocate

New York, NY

Today I do things that I never imagined I would be good at. I am representing young people – some with disabilities – who feel alone and unworthy, just like I did.

As a child I knew right away that I was different. I was born in the mid-1950s, the youngest of four overachieving sisters. I was rebellious, messy and temperamental, fighting with my parents when they tried to dress all of us in matching crinoline dresses. I was clearly not a girly-girl and I didn’t even know if I was a girl in my heart. I just knew that I wasn’t like my sisters, who were all feminine, cutesy and smart.

My parents tried their best to make me like my sisters, but when I started school, I did not effortlessly assimilate like they did. Growing up we spoke Spanish at home – my parents migrated from Puerto Rico to the United States to escape poverty – so I did not know any English. And while my sisters had no problem quickly picking up the new language, I struggled and was placed in a classroom where the other kids never spoke to me. When they laughed at my stuttering, I hit everyone in sight. I knew one thing: I was a fighter.

A few years later, in second grade, something happened that made me even more confused about who I was. I took a bad fall while running from a classmate and hit my forehead with such force that I lost consciousness. I ended up in the emergency room with a giant “egg” on my forehead. At the hospital, the police interrogated my mom, my dad and me, and I thought they were going to take me from my parents. The voices outside of my room were all very angry.

The next morning I woke up in a ward full of kids with various injuries. I was so scared. I could hear my parents in the other room talking softly about “the concussion” and how my brain was forever damaged. My parents told my sisters not to hit me on the head, but they never listened.

A few months later I took a reading test and scored very low. My parents were called in to discuss my injury and how it had affected my brain’s functionality. I knew that I was still the same and there had to be another explanation for the bad score. Fortunately, a teacher felt the same way. She sat with me while I took the reading test all over again and I passed, barely.

As I got older, I really couldn’t conform. It wasn’t just that I was unlike my sisters; I wasn’t like anyone else that I knew. I behaved erratically, I stuttered when I spoke and I had a limited vocabulary.

To deal with my problems, I started self-medicating. I had always looked for a way to escape my reality (even hiding in my parents’ closet waiting to be found). I overheard family members saying that I was crazy. I couldn’t maintain relationships, never finished anything that I started and had trouble remembering what I read. I even got lost going to places that I had been many times before. I started to believe that I was damaged goods and things quickly started going from bad to worse.

My eldest sister, who was a teacher, began to also have trouble focusing. She sought help and the physician diagnosed her with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and put her on medication. She encouraged me to get tested, too, because her doctor explained that the condition was likely from biological differences in how the brain works and that it could be hereditary.

I was ecstatic. Finally, a name for what I might have! Maybe I was not crazy, not damaged goods and I may not have even caused it. I was quickly diagnosed with ADD and my life dramatically improved.

Now, for almost 30 years I have worked with Advocates for Children, an organization that celebrates differences and encourages people to try new things. I work with an amazing staff who inspire me to learn.

I finally found a place that I belong and stuck with it. Today I do things that I never imagined I would be good at. I am representing young people – some with disabilities – who feel alone and unworthy, just like I did.

Some people search endlessly and never find what they’re looking for. But I found my little place on this earth, even though I wasn’t looking for it. And that is something to celebrate!