The first time I spoke to Ali Stroker on Zoom, I had to try *very* hard to keep my cool. I saw her in the 2015 revival of Spring Awakening and I've listened to her rendition of "I Cain't Say No" as Ado Annie in the recent Broadway revival of Oklahoma about one-thousand times (by the way, she won a Tony for that role! Stop what you're doing and go watch this video to understand why.). You may also recognize her from her role on Glee. And the best part? She's a longtime cupcakes and cashmere reader, an incredible storyteller, and has a warmth to her that made me want to stay on that Zoom call all day long. Enjoy her piece! - Leslie
I have a disability and feel very privileged. You may be thinking, “These words aren’t often paired together.” Let me explain: I was injured in a car accident at the age of two and have used a wheelchair for mobility ever since. I have a spinal cord injury and am paralyzed from the chest down. My brother was also injured in the accident, and there is a very special bond between us because we understand each other’s experience and were lucky to grow up with two incredibly supportive and positive parents and a little sister who, to this day, is my best friend. My family is loving and tough and always there for me. We are survivors. I was raised on the principles that you never, ever, ever, ever give up and that being different was BETTER than being like everyone else. Finding our own way of doing things was the norm.
I don’t take my independence for granted. I spent ages 2 to 14 in physical therapy twice a week, working on my strength so I could transfer in and out of bed, the car, and wheelchair. I lived in LA across the country from my family for three years after graduating from college to feel my independence at its full capacity—I literally trained myself to not be needy. But this determined self-reliance became complicated when I started dating in high school.
From my first boyfriend, my relationships looked and felt very different from the romcoms I loved and watched on the weekends. The romantic representation of ideal love and marriage in movies like Father of the Bride—my all-time favorite since I was 6 years old—provided a perfect escape from the challenges I began to recognize in my own relationships. While Annie Banks frets over the perfect wedding cake, I knew that I wanted to talk about my disability with my crush, but I was so nervous to navigate that conversation. It felt vulnerable in a new way.
My fear was this: Would my disability be “too much” for him? Turns out, it wasn’t. In fact, my disability wasn’t something he was worried about. He loved helping me in the car and putting my wheelchair in the trunk. It wasn’t the physical, but rather the emotional dynamics that felt difficult. I stopped speaking up when he would do things that would make me feel bad. I made exceptions for him not calling me back because he was “so accepting” of my disability.
Unfortunately, I didn’t learn my lesson in high school and went on to allow this to happen in my twenties as well—I was so afraid of being “needy” that I focused my attention on making myself more independent and meeting my partners’ needs, even when they didn’t come close to meeting mine. I would go out of my way to do something that I thought they needed support with, and to be honest I can see now it was overcompensating, and then I would feel used. This pattern continued over and over again as each relationship crumbled.
My needs are physical and emotional and spiritual. Some of them are very obvious and some of them not. I always thought that once you were in a relationship, you had to get all of your needs met by your partner and in turn meet all of theirs. It was so scary to realize that wasn’t true—that it was okay to ask for help, after I’d spent the first 25 years of my life working and proving to myself that I could be independent.
I look back at these moments now as a 33-year-old woman and have so much compassion for myself. I was so unaware of my worth that I told myself it was a “big deal” that someone could be accepting of my disability. I wasn’t sure if there would be other lovers who would come along after, so I needed to prove to myself that I didn’t need anyone. But that was never true. I always needed support and help. I could manage my day to day, but I am someone who is needy. I no longer think that’s bad.
I am so grateful to be in a healthy and happy relationship today. I have learned to depend on my partner David in ways that make me feel vulnerable. I know that I have someone there to catch me and hold me and carry me. David and my communication is fierce—it’s the only way I know how to describe it. He helps me talk about the hardest parts of my disability. He expresses his needs around my disability as well. I love this the most. He and I know that being in an inaccessible environment puts pressure on our relationship. He loves to help me, let me be very clear, but when I don’t have my independence to go use the restroom on my own, or to step outside to make a phone call, an intruder creeps into our relationship. Things don’t flow for us. So we work hard to set ourselves up for success. That work isn’t easy.
Finding vacation rentals and accessible restaurants in New York City, where we both live, isn’t easy. Wheelchair access is still niche. When I call to ask if something is wheelchair accessible, you wouldn’t believe how many people don’t have a clear answer. I am writing this in an inaccessible house (that I discovered once we got here), that we rented for the Fourth of July on VRBO. The house has a sunken living room, so every time I go to the kitchen or bedroom, I need help to get up and down the step. David helped me every time, and was loving and patient, but by the end of the trip we looked at each other and said, “No more sunken living rooms!” The attention to detail in our relationship allows us to thrive.
Coming up on the 30th anniversary of The Americans with Disabilities Act I think about how fortunate I am to be in the “ADA Generation.” I don’t know my life without the ADA. It’s my right to have access to public spaces in America. But there are still so many loopholes. As I get older and wiser, I know that my freedom and independence is even more important to me. I want to be able to take my “one day” child to the playground by myself. I want to be able to get around my workplace, backstage of Broadway theaters, at my own will. The work to improve and enforce the ADA is not done, and my motivation to be a part of it feels stronger than ever.
My romantic relationships have been the place where I’ve learned the most about my disability and myself. It’s the place in my life where I can’t hide, and where my partner and I are the most vulnerable. It’s where my public persona of being a Tony Award-winning actress fades away and I am messy and imperfect and still a student of life. I have matured and grown because I have been uncomfortable, listened, cried and expressed my greatest fears.
These are the moments that have made me the woman I am today.