Charisse Hogan is a remarkable 19-year-old lady with cerebral palsy and ataxia. Hers has not been the easiest of childhoods. At school, other children laughed at the way she walked and mocked her speech impediment. She spent a great deal of her time alone and confused, wondering why she was so different from everyone else. Then, one day, she began documenting her life on ‘You Tube’, a decision which changed her life and may well have resulted in the most wonderful video diary ever made.
One of the reasons why I enjoy writing this blog is that, every week, I scour the newsfeeds for items of interest regarding cerebral palsy or disability in general. In doing so, I often end up learning about some truly incredible people. Many of them are an inspiration. They may have, for example overcome their disability to compete in a grueling triathlon. Or, perhaps they possess the kind of iron will power, which drives them to succeed in the face of impossible odds.
But every now and then, I am lucky enough to come across a person who simply blows me away and whose story leaves me at a loss for words. This week I think I’ve found just that person and it gives me great pleasure to make her story the focus of this piece.
Charisse Hogan is a 19-year-old teenager with cerebral palsy and ataxia. She has not completed the Ironman final in Hawaii. Nor has she just climbed K2. She is simply an ordinary young woman living with disability and trying to make the best of it.
Her story begins, much like mine. She was born during an emergency C section. Like me, the umbilical chord was caught around her neck. This caused her brain to be starved of oxygen for seven minutes, which in turn resulted in her cerebral palsy. She was diagnosed with the condition at the age of two.
Charisse’s cerebral palsy affects her ability to walk and co-ordinate her limbs. It also impedes her speech. Despite this, she attended a normal school in her home town of Littleton, Colorado. Up until this point, Charisse thought she was just like any other little girl. It was only when she started her formal education that things began to change.
The bullying began in second grade. Other children would mock the way she spoke or laugh at her erratic gait. She only learned to walk unaided at the age of nine, though cerebral palsy has given her a pronounced limp. The name-calling and taunting continued all the way through to eighth grade, where finally she made a group of friends who accepted and understood her.
However, just as things were starting to improve, her family was forced to move states due to her father’s career. Once again, Charisse, found herself in a new school environment where a combination of ignorance about cerebral palsy and general intolerance among her fellow classmates led to her leading a lonely existence.
At lunch, she sat alone and did not go out with any friends after school. Indeed, her only real companion during this difficult period was a dog her parents bought her by the name of Bailey. When I think of her sat alone in the school cafeteria, it’s enough to break my heart. No child should have to endure such isolation, whether disabled or not.
Then, in the tenth grade, Charisse started a video diary on ‘You Tube’. For a shy teenager, who was terrified of any form of public speaking, this was a very brave thing to do. She hoped it might help to explain her cerebral palsy to others and raise disability awareness about her condition. No doubt it also served as a much-needed release for her to work out pent up feelings of frustration and shame, even if she was not sure that anyone would watch or take notice.
But people did watch. Little by little the popularity of the little girl grew until her entries had an audience of thousands. However, it was when students from her own school saw her videos that things really began to change.
Slowly, the people around Charisse began to learn about her cerebral palsy and the way it affected her. They also realised how their ignorance manifested in mocking laughter and hurtful comments affected their classmate. People began to speak to Charisse more and by twelfth grade things were finally getting better.
Her confidence grew and the little girl who had led such an isolated school life began to come out of her shell. She started helping out with mentally challenged students, excelled in her dramatics class and even joined the varsity cheerleading team. At last the timid young woman with cerebral palsy was beginning to be understood and accepted for the person she was, not merely judged on her disability.
Sixty eight diary entries later, Charisse Hogan is a very different person from the bullied, confused and lonely child who started posting her videos on line three years ago. What is clear is that her tale is not merely a fight with cerebral palsy, but a battle against ignorance and lack of understanding, possibly even fear. It is an invaluable documentary that demonstrates just how all disabled people deserve to be treated just the same as everyone else and not to be judged simply on what they cannot do.
What makes her videos so endearing however, is not merely the subject matter. The way Charisse has slowly but determinedly risen above the challenges caused by her cerebral palsy is, in itself, a wonderful story . But there is something about Miss Hogan’s character which is utterly compelling. The gentle manner in which she speaks about her everyday ups and downs is quite simply enchanting. Her character captivates and holds one’s attention throughout every clip to the point where one is quite sorry when it finally comes to an end.
This is someone who possesses that kind of personality which effortlessly draws others to them, not to mention the fact that she is actually very pretty. Hardly surprising, therefore, that she ended up with a handsome young lad on her arm for prom night!
Charlisse’s latest video diary entitled ‘Beautifully Different’ is possibly her most moving. It took her two painstaking weeks to complete and deals with the painful bullying and isolation which she went through at school all the way up to the point when she realised that her differences were nothing to be ashamed of.
‘Beautifully Different’, as with all Charlisse’s entries, documents a journey. A journey which began with a confused, lonely little girl wondering why she had been singled out to be so different. It ends, however, with a young woman who not only realises that we are all different and unique, but more crucially, that there is a beauty in that difference and uniqueness which should not only be celebrated, but cherished.