MAKING A PLACE FOR KIDS WITH DISABILITIES
© 2000 DALE BORMAN FINK
Lindy was a trim, energetic child, whose developmental delays and health problems were well-masked by her dazzling smile and socially appropriate manners. To meet her, you wouldn’t guess that she had undergone heart surgery three times and hip surgery once. You would notice a few things, though. She wore glasses, and had a hard time pronouncing words with the r sound in them. And there were those times she suited up with her softball team but sat on the bench the entire game, because the volatility of her sugar levels was depleting her energy.
On the field, she did pretty well, rotating through all the positions like her teammates, and running with a somewhat awkward gait. While she was playing first base one evening, she stuck out her glove and serendipitously snagged a line drive. She looked astonished, but no moreso than most of her teammates would have been. “If she hadn’t been so surprised, she probably could have stepped on the base and made it a double play!” her dad said.
One time she was the first base runner, and the next batter launched a pretty good hit. Lindy was so excited she ran from first to second, then right up through the pitcher’s mound to home. “As she crossed home plate, the other team was like, ‘where did she come from?'” her dad chuckled. The umpire waved her back to do it correctly.
Lindy’s teammates “would direct her where she belonged, took her under their wing” during the softball games, Lindy’s mom said. But when I asked whether the social interaction that took place during games ever extended to the formation of real friendships, the answer was no. “She was invited to birthday parties once or twice. Parents worried about her medical needs, and I can’t say I blamed them.”
Most people outside the family didn’t know why she stopped playing ball in the Wabash Park and Recreation Department (WPRD) league after age nine. The officials of the WPRD said Lindy was getting too tall to play in the coach-pitched league with the seven and eight year olds, but she wasn’t physically capable of competing with the girls her own age.
That prompted the family to look into Special Olympics for the first time, although they had to drive to another town for that. She earned her way to the state finals three times, and in her last competition, she won gold medals in both the 50-yard dash and the running long jump.
While Special Olympics gave her an avenue to socialize and compete with other persons with mental disabilities, she continued to be active in Junior Girl Scouts, and also in a bowling league, in her own community of Wabash. In these two activities, there were no other kids with disabilities. Her average bowling score was 55, not counting the lower scores she obtained while bowling from a wheel chair, following her hip surgery.
As she entered the final seasons of her life, the Make-A-Wish Foundation offered to send her and a parent anywhere she wanted. Wabash was within driving distance of St. Louis, and since she had been to several St. Louis Cardinal baseball games already, you might have thought she would have picked Disney World, or another destination more heavily advertised as a youngster’s nirvana. But she knew what she liked most in the world, and her parents are still proud to display the photographs of their happy girl, posing with future Hall of Famer, shortstop Ozzie Smith, her favorite of all the players. Lindy died before that year ended, her energy strong all the way to the end, says her mother, but her heart no longer able to do its work. She was 12 years old.
It was just a few months after Lindy’s passing that I began to study the youth and recreation programs of a Midwestern town, which I called Wabash. It was a community of about 14,000 people, surrounded by smaller, farming-oriented towns. Her parents were kind enough to meet with me, and share their photographs and stories, although their grieving was not yet complete. Lindy’s mom had left her position as a nurse one day before Lindy died, and she had not yet returned to her job when I met her. Although I never met Lindy, her experiences helped me to frame the issues that I wanted to explore.
As Lindy’s wish was to visit with her favorite baseball players and watch them in action one more time, mine was to make use of the insights available from careful attention to Lindy’s story. If readers from other communities are able to see in the youth, the families, the volunteers and community members of this case study, issues and practices that they wish to examine anew, then let them continue the dialogue–at their camps, in their groups and troops and recreation centers, as well as in other articles and books. That would be the finest way to recognize Lindy’s wish, and a fitting way to honor the people of the town I called Wabash.