I have been trying to write this article for a really long time. I’ve honestly lost count of the number of times that I’ve started it, just to scrap it and start again a few weeks later. So let me try again and this time let me start by saying that it’s not my intention to suggest that we have it better or worse than anyone else with any other type or severity of disability. I do however believe there are unique challenges faced by children with less visible disabilities. This article will focus on those challenges.
For the most part, people want to fit in, they want a place to belong. This goes for small children, the elderly, people with disabilities, high school students, professionals and blue collar workers. We all want to fit in somewhere, but for some this can be particularly difficult. For many people with a disability, it’s challenging to find a place where they fit in. This is as true for people with mild disabilities as it is for others, but some of the difficulties they face are different.
I want you to play a little game with me and put yourself into the shoes of a child who has mild cerebral palsy.
You are active, and fun loving, you wear a brace and are able to walk and run. You fatigue much more quickly than your peers and you have limited use of one hand. Imagine you want to play hockey, there is a local stand up hockey team for youth with various disabilities but you can’t skate. Despite many attempts to learn to skate, many twisted ankle and face plants, you just can’t get the hang of skating. Not to mention that you can’t fit your brace into a skate. But you’re 7-years-old and hockey looks pretty awesome and you really want to give it a try.
Your parents start researching options because they have always told you there’s nothing you can’t do and will bend over backwards to prove that point to you. They learn about sled hockey which they didn’t know very much about. Sled hockey is designed to allow people with disabilities to play hockey, so it should be the right place for you to fit in, right? Well, maybe not exactly.
First of all, your weaker hand has a hard time holding the stick, however, with your tenaciousness and determination, you figure out a rowing motion and can move that sled pretty quickly with just one stick. It’s clear that this sport poses a different set of challenges for you than it does for most of the other players on the team but that’s not the issue. The real challenge is the fact that you don’t exactly fit in. Don’t get me wrong, the vast majority of the families, and all of the kids are kind and accepting. In fact you and your family made some wonderful friends while you played sled hockey. However, the reality is that you just didn’t fit in. You overheard the snide comments, statements by a small minority of the parents that “some kids weren’t disabled enough for the team.” Comments that “sled hockey is a wheelchair sport.” The rolled eyes, the stares, the loud sighs when you were running around being a little too wild. You noticed, your parents noticed, even though they were the minority of the families there, the message was loud and clear, you didn’t fit it. No, it turns out, sled hockey wasn’t for you.
So, there is a floor hockey team for typical kids over at the local YMCA, and you think you will check that out. No skating is involved and you like to run, this sounds pretty good. But running while holding the stick and tracking the ball, and trying to keep up with the kids who don’t have disabilities proves to be too much. You just can’t keep up with these kids. Despite the best efforts of you and your parents, and multiple attempts at playing, hockey didn’t work out. So now you’re a 10-year-old who doesn’t play hockey anymore. Too disabled for typical teams, too typical for teams for people with a disability.
I could share with you story after story of similar attempts to fit in, on a typical soccer team, on a baseball team for kids with disabilities, at swim lessons, at tennis camp, in gym class. I could go on, but you get the idea. The story is the same each time I tell it, too disabled for typical activities, too typical for disabled activities. Where does that leave us? For us it left us discovering individual adaptive sports where our son can compete against other kids with similar disabilities. It left us starting a local adaptive sports team and creating a space where he could fit in. What makes adaptive sports so special is that teammates compete at individual sports, against other people who have similar disabilities but they can still work together towards team goals. This provides the best of individual and team sports. We were able to do this because our son was interested in track and field, and we were crazy enough to take on the challenge of starting a team and learning more about adaptive sports than we ever thought we would need to know (and we still don’t know enough). For other families who have children with mild disabilities (and really any athlete with a disability) struggling to find a place to fit in, I would encourage you to look into adaptive sports. While this isn’t the answer for everybody, it may be the answer for some.
For people with less severe disabilities the fact that their disability is not always obvious to onlookers can be a blessing and a curse. When you look more or less like everyone else, the expectation is that you will behave like everyone else. You will be able to keep up with everyone else, you will be able to keep your cool like everyone else, you will talk like everyone else, you will process information like everyone else, you will grasp social niceties like everyone else, you will understand abstract concepts like everyone else. However, this is not always the case. And when these kids cannot meet these unrealistic expectations that are not based on a true understanding of their abilities but rather on inaccurate assumptions based on their appearance, they are the ones who are punished. They are left out of the game, or held back in swim lessons, or punished at school.
Those who care about these children often spend a lot of time and a lot of patience educating people who don’t understand. Sometimes our efforts pay off, other times not as much. But we keep trying, and hopefully, eventually, the efforts of all of us will pay off in greater understanding, caring and a place where our kids can truly belong.