If you ask Liane Russell what has most defined her as a teenager, the last answers you’ll hear are her vision impairment, cerebral palsy or leg braces that run from her shoes to her knees.
Rather, you’ll hear about a place where she’s as visible and vulnerable as a teen can be: the stage.
“I figure it’s a part of me, so why dwell on it?” Russell, 18, said of her disabilities. “I love chorus and Drama Club. With singing, it isn’t a physical activity and I can sing as loud as I want . . . With acting, I can be someone else and still be myself at the same time.”
Russell’s journey began when she was born nine weeks early and was subsequently diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Her right foot is turned inward and a vision impairment causes eye fatigue if she stares too long. Today, she wears ankle-foot orthosis braces and leaves classes five minutes early to navigate her school’s hallways and stairs, the latter of which she calls “a bit of a monster.”
Despite those challenges, the Port Jefferson resident has worked her way to a 94.62 GPA, taking mostly honors-level courses and four Advanced Placement classes. She’s spent up to 11 hours a day studying on weekends to reach that level of academic success, she said.
Russell is also in the National Honor Society and Environmental Club. She has appeared in eight high school shows. Her favorite role was that of a drunk actress in “You Can’t Take It With You.”
“I liked how goofy I got to be — and if I messed up it didn’t matter,” Russell said.
Russell is also a Girl Scout, having reached the highest membership level of ambassador, and volunteers at the Port Jefferson Free Library, Port Jefferson Historical Society and Theatre Three in Port Jefferson.
“What I love most about Liane is that she knows herself; she has the courage to be herself,” said her guidance counselor, Kerry Fallon. “She knows what she needs, and works hard for what she wants.”
Russell echoes those sentiments, but admits it took time for her to adopt that mindset.
“With special needs, people say ‘I understand’ all the time, but the reality is you don’t understand unless you have one,” she said. “It took a while, but I’ve definitely become a way more confident person.”
HIGHER ED: Russell plans to study psychology at The College of New Jersey and wants to work with special-needs children.
FRESHMAN FAST-FORWARD: Russell said she is eager to expand her freedom and confidence. “Especially my confidence, because that’s something I’ve struggled with at times.”