Teens playing tennis

As someone with a disability, I can tell you firsthand I’ve been discriminated against in the past for having autism. But I can also tell you that people are much more understanding than they used to be.

Growing up, I was bullied for having a disability. It really started in fifth grade when it became noticeable. Family tragedy didn’t help matters, I moved to a new state and while in my new school, I struggled with paying attention and making friends. I was pulled out of math class into a smaller room where I could focus on bettering my math skills at a slower pace.

Well, for my peers, it wasn’t hard to put together that a kid who is socially awkward and is pulled out during math class probably has a disability. So instead of being understanding and being nice, fellow peers decided to make me their punching bag.

“What are you? A r-word?” and “You answer questions like a turd!” were routine exchanges I received after classes. Some would extend to “You’re a r-word, you know that right?” or when my dog passed away, it became “What kind of r-word has a dog named Bubbles?” It wasn’t a great experience.

When I moved to Florida, it was a much easier time during my adolescent years. In seventh grade, I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, and until freshman year of high school I was able to “hide” my disability.

My freshman year of high school, I was put in a study hall class designed to help those who struggle with organization and of course, people figured out I had a disability. I can’t hide being socially awkward, and in middle school, everyone is socially awkward.

All the same insults in fifth grade, combined with homophobic and crude slurs really made my freshman year a nightmare. I was bullied enough to where eating lunch at the cafeteria was no longer an option because I would be insulted to tears, so I began eating in the library midway through the school year. I then left to go to boarding school in Cape Cod after freshmen year.

Since then, there seems to have been major progress in terms of understanding those who have disabilities. I’m proud of my cousin, Soren Palumbo, who co-founded the “Spread the Word to End the Word” movement. The movement, which started in February 2009, is a campaign that encourages people to take a pledge to stop saying the r-word. Although it took time for a noticeable difference to be seen, it’s clear the r-word is now widely considered taboo.

As someone who is a free speech advocate, I feel like you should be able to say whatever you want. Although words don’t physically hurt you, I will tell you first-hand that they sure can hurt you mentally. After my freshman year of high school, I have rarely been chastised for having a disability and when I am called the r-word or insulted, it’s usually because of my opinions.

While I believe discrimation against those with disabilities is still a problem, much progress has been made.