On Dr. Martens and Disability

My cerebral palsy often turned footwear into a wedge issue

Annie Zaleski
Human Parts
Published in
6 min readJul 27, 2018

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Photo by Elijah O'Donell on Unsplash

My love affair with Dr. Martens started while I was hunting for “cool” at a gigantic St. Louis mall. In an otherwise nondescript store, I spotted a pair of black Dr. Martens boots covered in flaky gold glitter. The sparkles weren’t baked into the material, but were instead glued all over the boots in tiny, puckered circles. Glam yet punk, sturdy but whimsical — these boots flipped a double middle finger at convention, and of course I had to have them.

My entire high school fashion aesthetic was best summed up as “alterna-teen” — a Daria-caliber pejorative once lobbed at me by a guy in my band class that nevertheless fit me to a T. To me, khaki was kryptonite. Instead, I preferred anything that looked different. I raided my parents’ closets for threadbare vintage clothes and old flannel shirts and wore oversized band T-shirts with jeans or corduroys. At other times, I rocked suburban-weird fashions, like fishnets with a knee-length black lace dress that made me look like a Stevie Nicks in training.

In other words, these glitter-spangled Dr. Martens were the ultimate weird-girl accent piece, something that would make me look wildly different from everybody else in my high school.

Ecstatic at the thought, I tried them on — or, more precisely, I went to battle with them.

I was born with the neurological disorder cerebral palsy, specifically the type known as spastic diplegia. Cerebral palsy (or CP, as it’s abbreviated) manifests itself differently in every person who has it. In my case, I walk with a stiff gait and fatigue more easily and have difficulty walking long distances. Even if I wanted to blend in with everyone else, I couldn’t. In hindsight, it’s not a stretch to view my need to look quirky as compensation for physical differences.

To keep my gait steadier, I wear custom wraparound foot orthotics. Mine are molded from sturdy plastic and secured with Velcro straps. They hold my feet well and improve my balance. But the orthotics also add width and bulk and reduce joint flexibility, which can make finding cute shoes a chore. And so there my mom and I were, trying to shove Dr. Martens on my feet, determined that they would fit over my orthotics…

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Annie Zaleski
Human Parts

Writer. Recently seen @ NPR Music, Salon, The Guardian. Duran Duran ‘Rio’ 33 1/3 out 5/6/2021. https://bit.ly/orderrio333