Bringing Ability to Athleticism

Hello readers,

If you stop and think about it, our everyday lives are made up of little tasks we do each day. We get up, we groom and dress ourselves, we clean house. We go to work, take our kids to school, and have some leisure time. Many of us work out in order to stay fit and healthy.

Workouts are a big part of my everyday, though not quite as big as they were about 10 years ago. Back then I was in my “nearly anorexic” phase. Now, I try to mix stationary biking, Zumba, and jogging with days off and a healthy relationship with chocolate (I have a sweet tooth). I also sometimes like to watch people compete athletically.

It occurs to me that, even though I want to be healthy, athleticism has never been part of my daily life. It’s never been something I enjoyed or pursued with passion. Some of that is non-disability related; I’m pretty sure I was created to be an artsy bookworm rather than an athlete. But sometimes I can’t help looking at kids, teens, and adults with athletic gifts and wondering if I missed out. I’m not referring to jealousy. I’m referring to the part of me that says, “I wish I could do that. Would I be brave or strong enough to do it? Could I, with modifications?”

There was a time I thought I could do anything, because I didn’t think cerebral palsy mattered. I thought it was just something I went to therapy for once a month, and the reason I had to wear leg braces. I don’t know if I thought CP would go away, but I saw no reason I couldn’t do everything exactly the way other kids did. It wasn’t on the radar.

Back then–when I was in late elementary/middle school and my little brother was in early elementary–we watched a lot of Nickelodeon when we could get Dad to turn off the news. Two popular game shows we liked were Legends of the Hidden Temple and Guts. I especially enjoyed the latter, particularly rooting for the female athletes, of which there never seemed to be enough. And even though I would’ve been afraid of the heights and water of some events, I still wondered in the back of my mind if I could do it. I wanted people to know I had guts. I wanted to wear a blue, red, or purple uniform and have a cool nickname. I wanted to win a gold, silver, or bronze medal just like in the Olympics (the show was basically the Olympics for kids, after all).

But I never told anybody that, and they never would’ve figured it out. Athletics wasn’t enjoyable for me. The only exposure I got was in P.E., where I was either constantly corrected or separated from other kids to do inappropriately modified activities. Special Olympics was not an option at the time and even if it was, I’d have been made fun of for competing against kids with cognitive disabilities. In fact, I probably would have been judged “not disabled enough” (and how weird is that)? By the time I was in late middle school, I was afraid of anything having to do with sports, shy, overweight, and lacking in confidence.

Of course, I got through that. I found exercises that worked for me, and discovered I enjoyed competing against myself much more than I did competing on a team. I know I have the spirit of an athlete even if I can’t jump off a 7-foot bridge and hit a target, or collect buoys on my arms while swimming through simulated waves. While I’m always working to make my body better, and to balance body, mind, and soul, I’m okay with not being a superstar athlete.

I wonder though, how many kids with disabilities are out there right now who have felt like me? How many enjoy Special Olympics but want to compete with kids of all abilities? How many want to move beyond sports and games “just for” people with disabilities, and test what they can do? How many once thought they could do things, only to hear, “No; your legs aren’t strong enough and never will be. You can’t swim well enough; you’d drown and die.” (My mom actually once used the phrase “drown and die.”) “You can’t judge distance well enough, or move fast enough, for that obstacle course.”

I’m not suggesting we let people pretend disabilities don’t exist, for the sake of athleticism. I personally am glad somebody told me it would be dangerous to attempt the obstacles I saw on television, as well as some of the stuff played in gym class (for example, because of my lack of depth perception, you will never see me playing dodgeball). What I am suggesting is, let’s take another look at athleticism. Why is it a door closed to so many PWDs? Why are their only options segregated sports (because as much as I respect what Special Olympics is trying to do, they are segregated).

There are people with disabilities who have made great strides in athletics, and they should be celebrated. Too often though, their accomplishments are made less because “Oh, you know, that’s in the *disabled* arena, not the *real* one.” Inspiration porn runs rampant. Many kids with disabilities learn to eschew athletics, so they end up under- or overweight. And then they’re blamed for not being active. Do me a favor, okay? Stop blaming PWDs for not doing something, when you haven’t given them the proper avenues to do it.

I say we need to bring ability back into athletics. We need to slowly, but significantly, move away from segregated sports and encourage people of all abilities to compete together. Modifications can be made. Sometimes it’s hard, but if people think long enough and try enough times, they’ll figure something out. Come on guys, we can put a man on the moon. We’ve perfected penicillin. We figured out we don’t have to run around in loincloths grunting at each other. Surely to heaven we can figure out a person with CP to compete on a TAB sports team, with help. It’s already being done in schools across the country; why not move it into competition? For example, let’s say an ambulatory person with a limp or club foot wants to figure skate. Can he or she rely on moves that would not hurt that foot? Could a blind swimmer swim competitively, if given modifications to help him or her “see?”

We also need to start telling people with disabilities that they can be strong, be healthy, and be winners. Too often, even benevolently, the message PWDs hear is, “It’s okay for you to lose. It’s enough that you tried.” I cannot tell you how many times I heard “trying is enough” as a kid, and how much I came to hate the word “try.” It was a weaponized word, used either to try to force me to do something I couldn’t, or to reassure me it was okay to fail because I was disabled. I didn’t want to try–I wanted to win. Other PWDs, I bet, feel the same way. Stop telling us to try. Stop patting us on the head and saying trying is enough. Tell us we can WIN! That way, even if we don’t, we’ll know we’re capable of it. And no, PWDs don’t have to win just because they have disabilities. That’s called cheating. But they deserve a fair shot at it, and they deserve for their shots to come from real contests, not segregated ones made laughably easy (yes, I have seen this happen). People with disabilities can be held to high athletic standards if coaches, teachers, parents, and loved ones let it happen.

Finally, athletes with disabilities should be allowed to experience athleticism the way their peers without disabilities do. Example: a couple of years ago, one school decided it was going to have a “special needs basketball team” (not going into the logistics of that; you’ve heard it enough). The athletes on this team were good. They knew the rules, how to legitimately play, and how to win–and they did win games. But their players were not allowed to have letter jackets–because they had disabilities. Other such examples exist, such as players with disabilities only getting participation trophies, or PWDs being allowed to play in one game, for five minutes, when the home team is already kicking butt, just so they can be “inspiring.”

Foul! Flag on the play! Go to the penalty box! Come on, folks. I understand athletics can be dangerous and fast-paced, and that you might be protective of athletes with disabilities. But if those athletes are going to be part of a team, for good golly sakes, let them be part of the team! They are there to learn the game, learn teamwork, and enjoy camaraderie, not fill your water bottles and your inspiration tank. (By the way, that goes for “letting” an athlete with a disability be scorekeeper or referee, too. If they didn’t volunteer, don’t just stick them in that position).

Too long, the door to athletics has been closed to PWDs. Let’s open it, wide! Let’s ask PWDs what they’d like to play, whether they’d prefer team or solo sports, and what we can do to make it happen. Let’s give them chances to compete for real accolades. Let’s let them be part of our teams, with the cool uniforms and the cool nicknames and the inside jokes. It’ll take guts, but I think we’ve all got those.



Hey, Teacher Wannabe, Leave Me Alone: PWDs are Not Perpetual Students

Hello readers,

Some people are so weird, and scary. They’re the kind of people that make me want to retreat to my room and spend the rest of my life working from home, watching Once Upon a Time, and scouting Amazon for 99 cent Kindle deals.

You might think I’m talking about ax murderers, serial rapists, and those people behind the “clown killings” of 2016. And yeah, in a way I am, but I have encountered much more innocuous-looking, yet scarier people. People like therapists and doctors who believed my life would finally be fulfilling if my walking were 10% better. People like teachers and administrators who equated being smart and expressing it with needing “behavioral remediation.” And recently, I encountered another type of scary person.

Last Tuesday’s episode of Dr. Phil featured a woman whose fiancé claimed she needed “wife lessons” before she could marry him. The man constantly said things like, “I need to teach you…you don’t know what it means for the house to be clean. It is not that hard to do things my way. You are lazy.”

Now, this woman did not have a disability, but the relationship between her and her fiancé scared me a bit, because I could definitely see a man being nice to me at first and then saying things like, “You are lazy. I do not want to be your caregiver. You need to be taught how to do things you ‘claim’ you can’t.”

And then I realized, why am I so scared of a man, a potential relationship partner, doing that based on disability, when it’s already been done to me by other people? More to the point, why is much of society unaware that we treat PWDs like perpetual students? Yes, we all learn something new every day. Nobody is past the point where they can learn. But there is a huge difference between learning because it’s what you’re expected to do, or learning for pleasure, and having someone treat you like a perpetual grade-schooler. I have seen this happen a lot. Middle- and high-schoolers with disabilities, who have strong social circles, are still told they need to work on social skills or learn to behave. Adults with disabilities are told they need to “learn how to work” before they can get a job. Or if they already have jobs, they are told they need to learn to do them one certain way; all other ways are wrong. I had this happen this week. After apparently asking for help one too many times, I received an email in which I was chastised for not working independently.

I say this whole construct is a bunch of baloney. Once again, the solution goes back to the Golden Rule. Think about how you, as a TAB person, would want to be treated. After working all day to clean your house, or putting effort into socializing when it’s hard, would you want to be told, “You didn’t do that correctly, nor can you. Is it so hard to do this the right way?” No, you would not. So why do we do it to people with disabilities, in the name of helping them learn? That’s not learning; that’s shoving your expectations and standards down another person’s throat.

The solution to this problem also involves common sense. Let’s go back to the email I received about working independently. After emailing back to express how I felt about that little dig, I’m still trying to figure out what it meant. No one person is fully independent. I don’t care if you can raise five kids, skydive, make a cheese soufflé, and cure the common cold in the same week. At some point you will still need help with something, and most work environments understand that. We treat PWDs as if having a job is some impossible goal, one that if they reach, they are supposed to handle completely by themselves. Otherwise, they are failures. We chastise PWDs for not having relationships and social lives, but out of the other sides of our mouths we say, “You can’t because you need to learn how.” Yet, the TAB population gets to ask for help. They get to be interdependent, to make mistakes, and to manage themselves, because they are able-bodied. They are somehow better and more skilled.

Say what?

And don’t even get me started on the fact that we tell PWDs they need to learn things, but never let them stop learning one thing and move on to the next. In the TAB world, you are expected to progress. You pass Spanish I, you move on to Spanish II. You learn how to make cupcakes from a mix, you are trusted to try a more complicated recipe. You master your letters in kindergarten, you move on to first grade, where you are taught how those letters produce words, words produce sentences, and sentences produce books. Yet PWDs are constantly stuck in a holding pattern based on the judgments of other people, who often do not see or care about their desires, efforts, or successes.

A lot of people, like that so-called fiancé from Dr. Phil, say they perpetually try to “teach” out of love. And yes, most people helping PWDs have good intentions. Yes, PWDs need to learn things like everybody else. The problem is, PWDs often feel like perpetual students–i.e., children–because that’s what they’ve been taught they are. Many PWDs in school don’t know what grades they are in, because they have been “educated” in self-contained environments where grades, age, and progress are not relevant. Adult PWDs are still being told they need to “learn to be adults,” when according to their ages, they have been adults for years. Maybe the problem is not learning, teaching, or a lack thereof. Maybe the problem is that we’re scared to see PWDs as adults, because once we do, we have to treat them as such. Treating someone as an adult often involves a level of trust we’re not all prepared to give, because we want control. Let me speak from experience: PWDs are some of the most controlled individuals in the world, and because of that, they often lead artificial lives. Yet the people claiming to help them or teach them are never satisfied; they pile on more goals, more standards, more control.

It’s good to learn and to be a student of the world around you, but eventually you have to get out of the classroom and apply what you know. I’d like to see PWDs given more chances to do that. When they get those chances, I’d like to hear less, “Well, uh, yeah, you did it, but not the right way. Let me teach you more.” I’d like to hear, “Nice work! You did great. You’re really talented at this; have you ever considered teaching others to do it?”