Book review: Off Balanced by Zachary Fenell
Regular Disability Horizons contributor, Sarah Ismail, discovers the parallels between her personal experiences of living with cerebral palsy, and that of the author of “Off Balanced”.
Off Balanced is the teenage memoir of Zachary Fenell, a young American man with mild cerebral palsy. This electronic book takes us through the teenage years of a boy who spends his childhood wanting one thing above everything else – to be ‘normal.’
I soon realised that Zachary’s schooldays were a lot like my own. I, too, have a mild case of cerebral palsy. I found myself smiling at a forgotten memory when he recalled the moment a young boy asked him ‘the question’ that any child walking with a limp must have been asked at least once in their life – “why do you walk funny?”
I think my own response was to try to explain cerebral palsy to a girl a few years younger than my teenage self. Zachary’s response made me laugh – he simply said ‘because I do,’ and continued walking!
His experiences of high school PE were very different to mine, although reading about them left me wishing that they had been similar. While I was forced to participate in high school PE to the best of my (almost non-existent) ability, Zachary earned his ‘gym credits’ by being his teacher’s assistant. This didn’t make him happy, however, as it left him feeling different to his peers.
Zachary briefly mentions the fact that in his childhood, he had sessions of physiotherapy, occupational therapy and hydrotherapy. I smiled at this as I, too, once had all three.
After complicated surgery during the summer before high school, his right leg became paralysed. Like a typical teenage boy, he compared his mother’s joy at the movement of his right toes to the joy felt by a football fan whose team has won the Championship!
Both of us left every class five minutes early in high school to avoid crowds of teenagers. We both also hated group work in high school, as we both had very few real friends to work with.
Like any teenage boy, Zachary developed a crush early in his high school years. His crush was Donna Williams, a girl in his biology class. But he never revealed his feelings to her, and, he states: “the romance which never was, evaporated over time.”
The book has clearly been aimed at non-disabled, young readers, as Zachary describes social situations in detail throughout. From the simple act of setting up a screen name so he could chat online, to every detail of his graduation party, he doesn’t leave anything to our imagination.
There are other characteristics and interests that we share. We both have very few real friends. We both fall more often than most people and luckily, most of the time, we both manage to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and go straight back to whatever we are doing. We also share a fear of drinking too much alcohol because of poor balance!
On a more serious note, both of us felt ready to talk in detail about disability at university. We are both unable to drive because of poor coordination.
We share a love of English and writing. As a journalist myself, I particularly enjoyed reading Zachary’s detailed recollections of his time on his high school newspaper, The Arc Light, and later his college newspaper, The Notre Dame News.
Unlike all the other autobiographies of writers with cerebral palsy I have read, this book does not focus on disability, the search for a cure or treatment systems. It is simply a well written, modern story of an ordinary, American teenager who happens to be disabled. The story ends with Zachary realising that he is an individual with a disability, not a disabled individual. He does wish, as many disabled people do, that he had had a disabled role model growing up. This is one way in which our lives have been very different. I have many close friends who share my disability and they are a very important part of my life.
Like any good book, though, Off Balanced left me wondering what happened next to the central character. I wonder if he will make more friends and if he will find love. I also wonder if he will ever write a sequel. I hope so, because I would love to follow the next stage of his life as closely as I was allowed to follow his childhood.
By Sarah Ismail
Looking for more books on disability? Why not also take a look at Sarah Ismail’s review of the autobiography One Little Finger?
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