Athletes with A Disability 

Connection is something most of us cherish. Forming relationships with people who have the ability to relate to our lives. Over the past couple of months, I have been welcomed to a couple sporting events. A group of young people with different disabilities coming together and playing sports. During the fall season, they played flag football on a junior high school field. When the chill of winter came around, they moved indoors and played basketball. Using an elementary gym in the area. I learned when attending the night of basketball, when the warmth of spring arrives, the kids will move on to playing baseball. My opportunity to watch these events has come from Bernard. He has a son, who has cerebral palsy, and plays in the league. The first activity I attended for the league was a flag football practice. That practice took place in the early fall, when short-sleeve shirts were still being worn. It was a comfortable evening to sit in a lawn chair. But, the emotions coursing through my body were anything but comfortable. There was an astonishing mixture of feelings, while watching the kids practice. Feelings that I didn’t expect when the invitation was accepted. My life had weirdly felt like it has been lived inside two worlds. The life of someone challenged with a disability. While, in the same breath, experiencing life as someone typically developed. My world has felt like it is being lived inside a gray area. 

There was a cathartic feeling to watching the flag football practice in the fall. An emotion of belonging that I didn’t remember feeling before the evening. Watching the kids challenged with disabilities play football was a little like watching myself. The view had me remembering the difficulties involved with playing sports myself, at a young age. Though, the disabilities I was watching appeared more involved, from my challenges at a similar age, my connection to them was palpable. Watching Bernard’s son play flag football with cerebral palsy was especially striking. He moved around the field better than I had anticipated. The degree with which the two of us are challenged with cerebral palsy didn’t appear far apart. Watching him play was somehow helping my ability to accept myself. Seeing him run and play caused me to think of how much I disliked my disability. Even today, I struggle with the acceptance of my own differences. So, the feeling was contrary to my own thoughts, when I told myself, he had nothing to be ashamed in regards to his disability. Much of me wished I could go back and say those things to myself. It was clear to be looking at someone who was physically challenged. But, I could also see a child who had many thing going for him. A good-looking boy with the ability to move about, play, and interact with friends. The future could still be very bright. These are concepts I struggled to think of about myself. 

A concept becoming more evident to me, while watching flag football practice for the first time, was the gray area I inhabit. The children playing on the field appeared impacted to a larger degree. I can remember being a child and playing t-ball in a league for kids with disabilities. The idea was a great one, to play with other kids who had challenges like myself. The trouble was the impact of those challenges. With my degree of cerebral palsy, I found it difficult to feel like I could fit in with them, and play. The physical abilities I had were slightly above the skill level many of my teammates possessed. The trouble centered around how badly I wanted to play organized sports. What I found inside my experience with the t-ball league was my understanding of the game, and capability to play, were above the level of the league, causing me frustration when participating. On the flip side, cerebral palsy had too much impact for me to play successfully with my peers. I would struggle to keep up with their physical skill level in any of the sports. The conundrum left me in the grey area, I have occupied for most of my life. Not really being disabled enough and being impacted by cerebral palsy too much. Watching these kids play, who are challenged by different disabilities, has left me feeling kind of isolated, again. They feel like a group to which I belong, then at the same time, I feel like a stranger. Similar emotions take place in the company of people who are typically developed. There are times when it feels like I just don’t fit. 

Despite the range of emotion felt watching Bernard’s son play sports. The experience has been awesome to see unfold. There seems to be many positive aspects of participating in the league, in which he plays. I have learned, these families drive from miles around for their kids to participate. Some traveling for up to thirty miles. The league for kids with disabilities has children from a wide range of ages. Each child is challenged with a disability and the impact of their disability varies. Having watched them play two sports now, flag football and basketball. It has been easy to see the community forming. Not only does a community seem to exist for the kids. As they move together from one sport to another, playing with and against one another. There seems to be a community among the parents of the children. Which, has been something I have heard about from parents who have disabled children. Sometimes the parents can feel the isolation of having a child with challenges. They might have trouble relating to parents who have typically developing children. It seems being part of a community of families would be positive. They come together and help their children play all kinds of sports. The feeling of joy washes over me when watching the support these families have for one another. Along with the support they provide the children. Helping them experience things that many kids experience, a game per week. Giving them something to look forward to, during the week. 

As for my experience with playing sports. Beyond the t-ball experience in the league with other kids who had disability challenges. I made attempts at playing two sports with my typically developed peers in an organized environment. When I was younger, the try of playing junior golf lasted just one season. The memory of playing in Seattle remains with me, as an overwhelming experience. We played a couple golf tournaments that year, but one sticks out in particular. I remember walking along the fairways feeling like the loneliest. As it took me two or three shots to keep up with the kids my age, who were typically developed. After playing a handful of youth tournaments that summer, I never played organized golf, again. The feeling of being in that grey area came to life, back then. Even though I didn’t really have a way to describe the emotions being presented. But, following that experience, I didn’t quit. Trying out for my junior high basketball team, and even trying out for my high school golf team. Neither ended in myself becoming part of the team. However, the basketball tryout ended in becoming a basketball manager for the next four years of school. Leaving me with the understanding that you never know what might happen until you try. The experience managing the basketball teams led me into helping as a junior high basketball coach, following high school. The failed tryout led to a six-year impact in basketball, I never saw coming. 

Watching these athletes challenged with a disability was mesmerizing. Most, if not all of the athletes face steeper challenges than I have been presented in life. Them having a place to play sports together appeared to be a blessing. They have the opportunity to move through the sports calendar together. Playing the sport which fits the season, from flag football, to basketball, and on to baseball in the spring. The safety they must feel in being together, I can only imagine. As the predictability of traveling through the year together helps them grow. I did get to play one year of organized basketball. During my high school years, in a league without a tryout, where everyone got to play in the games. The league was fun, but remained overwhelming, and was above my skill level. There just wasn’t a place for me that fit just right. A part of me feels envious when I watched these kids play together. They don’t worry much about the rules, or have concern about the way an offense operates. The athletes are simply out there having fun. Feeling what it means to be included and bonded to each other through sports. The parents drive their kids to gymnasiums and fields on weekend afternoons. Living in this world, with a disability, can feel different much of the time, but sometimes it feels pretty similar. I loved being able to experience watching them play the games we all know. 

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