January 26th, 2013
“Find Your Greatness!” I was sharing this slogan at the Helping Hands Foundation (HHF) annual winter conference in Boston held this past weekend. It was borrowed from the fantastic Nike commercial made of Nate Muehe, a twelve-year-old baseball player who just happened to be born missing part of his left arm. See him on YouTube:
During my talk, I decided to embarrass myself. I confessed that, despite my efforts to help others similarly born with a blatant physical difference to believe in their abilities and ignore other people’s assumptions, I had not walked the walk in my own home. Although I am not proud of this, I explained to the audience that when Charlie, our seven-year-old (who only has two fingers on each hand), expressed a desire to play baseball last Spring, I encouraged him instead to play soccer. Even basketball seemed like a more realistic option for sure. His older brother, who shares our genetic condition had already proven to be a good basketball and soccer player. Nevertheless, Charlie insisted that he wanted to try baseball. Over the summer he and my husband began to hit balls with a bat in our backyard and we both noticed that not only did he appear to have talent, he clearly enjoyed the game. But when Charlie persisted, I wavered………not being able to imagine how his hand would fit into a glove. Fortunately for us, our son assumed that we would solve that problem and didn’t spend his time worrying about it. In the end, Charlie dragged us to Sports Authority, found a glove that was somehow flexible enough to fit, and he has been participating in baseball clinics and private lessons ever since, preparing himself for the forthcoming Spring baseball season.
After my talk at HHF, a boy (I believe his name is Alex) came up to me with his family. By his appearance, he looked to have the same physical difference as Nate. Alex was around twelve, friendly, with a clearly beautiful disposition and great sense of humor. He was also eager to write for my site. Like Nate, Alex had already been playing baseball for years and was fortunate enough to have been raised by supportive parents willing to let go and follow his lead. After chatting with Alex’s parents, too, it was clear that ever since he expressed an interest in playing baseball at age four, they embraced his ambition, choosing to believe he could play baseball like any other kid, just in his own way. In fact, Alex was so enthusiastic about sharing his great baseball experience with Charlie that he offered for Charlie to come meet with him and practice one day with his team.
I also thought of Zach Hamm, who I have written about (Heroes Among Us, Feb 2012) who not only plays golf despite his physical differences, but started his own Golf Classic in Texas. In that moment I decided this week to add a “Kids Flaunt” to my site to feature such stories. I cannot wait to read from kids ready to flaunt not only who they are, but how their differences have shaped their lives.
The other day as I was trying to brainstorm ways I could get my site’s new “Kids Flaunt” up and running, I decided to reach out to a friend whose 6th grade son has Down’s Syndrome. Sticking with the theme of baseball, at least for now, I knew her child is mainstreamed and plays on a team with kids from his public school. When I asked if her son might be interested in writing a “Kids Flaunt” for me, her response not only intrigued me, it resonated with me. “Meg, I’m not sure that he knows he has a difference.” I get that. Even for those of us that realize we have a difference, we are certainly not focused on it.
Stepping back momentarily to the morning after I spoke to the families at HHF, I caught a story on the morning news from the Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, who had recently offered new Guidance. In a groundbreaking order, Duncan stipulated that, “Students with disabilities must be given a fair shot to play on traditional sports teams…if officials can make reasonable modifications to accommodate them. If those adjustments would fundamentally alter a sport or give the student an advantage, the school must make available parallel and comparable athletic programs.” When I heard the report, I instantly thought of Oscar Pistorious, wondering whether his participation in the Summer Olympics in London this past summer paved the way for this forward-thinking pronouncement from the Education Department. Although Pistorius’ own mainstreamed participation was not without controversy, I wrote in my “Blade Runner” post (July 27, 2012) that ….”any type of unfair advantage in the end was beside the point. The inspirational downstream impact from Pistorius’ very participation in the Games cannot be mimicked. He stands for the principal of inclusion. He defies expectations…..and in doing so, forces us to reconsider the boundaries and definition of normal.”
Whether inspired by Pistorius or not (I like to think so), all of a sudden the significance of Mr. Duncan’s efforts occurred to me. If those of us that are parents with children differently-abled have the confidence, the willingness, let’s face it– the guts, to allow our children to find and ultimately flaunt their greatness (e.g., via sports), the importance of them being able to play on “traditional” sports teams becomes not only ideal, but essential. After all, although any child who experiences life with a difference may look and even behave differently to the outside world, he or she is simply functioning within his or her own definition of normal, capable of doing everything, within their means. Here’s the reality check: Our kids don’t necessarily assume they are meaningfully different, less able, or meant to be isolated, until the world intrudes. Watch Oscar. Admire Nate. Read about Alex. Check out Charlie! http://youtu.be/hB5K_jya0OA
Let’s together, discover all their greatness.