Saturday, December 28, 2013

Seeing Past Our Own Handicaps

My first impression of my friend Mark was a negative one.

I watched him slowly make his way along a wharf one evening. He was walking slowing with canes in both hands. His family was guiding him along and someone with a wheelchair was right behind him.

My first thought was "What are these people thinking?"

I was standing on the three-masted schooner Victory Chimes a few years ago. Mark and his father were about to board. I couldn't imagine how this young man was going to make it up and down the ladder-like companionways on the 100-plus year old vessel. We were preparing for a week-long sail.

What I didn't know was that Mark and his father had been on the Chimes before. I also didn't know what Mark was capable of doing. All I saw was what he couldn't do. It was a snap judgment based on my own negative impressions and assumptions.

It turns out that I sailed with Mark twice. It was a wonderful experience getting to know him. He has some form of ALS. He couldn't speak. He struggled to walk. He moved slowly.  But it was amazing to relate and communicate and form a great friendship with him, even though he never spoke a word to me.

I reached that same conclusion last week as I talked to a few coaches. All three are in wheelchairs for various reasons. I was doing an extensive feature on how coaches in wheelchairs cope and still do what they love to do. That story runs Sunday. You can check it out here

As I talked to one of them, it suddenly came together for me. He said that people would look at him and say "Poor me". He told me he didn't want "Poor me".

I realized in that moment that people, including myself, often look at people with handicaps and see what they can't do. We pay no mind to the potential and abilities they have that we may not even know about.

One of the people featured in the story is a friend of mine. I've known Matt for many years and don't see him as a guy in a wheelchair. I know the quality person that he is and the kind of coach that he is.

Still, it is easy to look at others and see their inabilities before seeing their abilities. I did that with the other coach mentioned in the story. He's shown in the wonderful photo above (taken by Sun Journal photographer Daryn Slover).

I barely knew him or his story but when I heard he was going to be the varsity coach last year, I wondered how he'd be able to managed that. As a result of him coaching at the varsity level, I got to meet him and have gotten to know more about him. He's a great guy with a tremendous sense of humor and love of basketball. I don't see his chair or his handicap any longer.

I learned a variety of things from writing this feature. A significant part of it was understanding that I don't simply like and admire these coaches because of what they've accomplished from their wheelchairs. They're not handicapped. They're handicapable.  I admire them for who they are despite their handicaps. I know them as good people who are dedicated to coaching and teaching kids. They're not role models because of their wheelchairs. I admire them because they work so hard at what they do and are so committed to doing what they love that they'll overcome anything.

As I was thinking about all this, I also concluded that these conclusions are not just made about handicap people. We make such judgments all the time - about everybody. We're told we're not enough this and too much of that. We define each other, and even ourselves, by our inabilities and even our faults. Those become what we are known for as opposed to what our abilities offer. So-called unconditional love can often come with expectations and conditions.

This story about handicap coaches inspired me to keep plugging away when things get hard to do.  There are people I know that work so much harder to do what they love in comparison. This story also showed me how harmful judgment can be. They wanted to be seen as coaches, not viewed as handicapped coaches. Taking the time to truly know somebody and understand them opens up unimaginable opportunities.

I'm grateful to know people like these coaches. I'm thankful for meeting somebody and getting to know them like I did Mark.

Life shouldn't be about limiting what enriches us. It should revolve around seeking things and people that inspire, teach and just provide us love and joy.

Making judgments is easy and we're too quick to do it. It is a handicap we all must overcome. Understanding takes a little extra time, but it is ultimately worth it.

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