I recently posted a picture from my graduation from Old Forge School -- a school for kids with disabilities -- as part of the Throwback Thursday fad on social media. My niece was graduating sixth grade. Graduating to regular school and the seventh grade felt like a somewhat equivalent abuse of the word "graduation," and it seemed like a fun thing to throw out there. Posting the picture reminded me that the concept of a school specifically for kids with disabilities is all but dead as I understand it with "inclusion" now the model for educating kids with physical disabilities. Overall, that's the way it should be -- kids with physical disabilities being educated alongside everyone else. But in traveling down the road of trying to keep up with everyone else, I think we lost a little bit of the importance of kids with disabilities being together. Old Forge had many shortcomings, but one of its greatest accomplishments was providing a place where kids with disabilities were just kids.
We all had different disabilities or different levels of the same disability, meaning, in a very real way without the cutesy play on words that many organizations still insist on employing, that we had different abilities. Yet, we could play together, laugh together, sometimes date each other, and even fight each other. The disability was just a given, and, for the most part, we interacted as kids apart from our disabilities. We didn't all get along, but I think at least a large percentage of us did "get" each other on the level of disability.
My fondest memory of Old Forge is the time I spent playing wheelchair hockey. Every day after lunch and after school was about playing hockey. Kids in power wheelchairs played right alongside those in manual chairs, including one or two who actually got in wheelchairs just to play. There was even a kid who used his feet to move his wheelchair so his one good arm was free to use the stick -- and I held my own, thank you. In a tradition that started before I began attending the school, it was the kids who called their own penalties, divided up the teams, and even resolved their own disputes.
We held at least one two-on-two tournament that I can recall. One-on-one matches settled more than a few disputes. Younger kids waited their turn to play, and captaincies were handed down to what always seemed like the obvious next guy in line when the previous leaders were mainstreamed.
I never quite made captain. By the time I would have been "the guy," mainstreaming had pretty much gutted the school of viable players as the younger kids weren't all that interested in playing. In my last couple years at the school, I spent my free time after lunch playing wall ball with a couple kids and waiting to move on.
For others, the dances may be what they remember the most. Maybe it was the friendships they had or another favorite activity at school. But for me it will always be that ability to just play.
As I've gotten further and further away from the that time in my life . . . my gentle way of confessing that I'm getting older . . . I've missed the fun of simply playing a game on equal footing with a bunch of friends. It took almost 30 years before I found something that came close to replacing it in adaptive cycling. As much as I love cycling, however, it will never replace team sports for me. A year of playing power wheelchair hockey didn't quite work either -- playing in a power chair wasn't quite the same, and trying to use my "bad arm" to drive my chair so I could use a stick with my good arm lead to shoulder problems.
The idea of being able to play a game for fun with some peers is one of the driving forces that made me set a lifetime goal of creating a rec center geared toward people with disabilities. But the goal goes far beyond having a place to "play." I believe more than ever that truly developing a sense of community among people with disabilities is critical for enhancements in every aspect of our lives -- socially, professionally, academically, and so on. Having somewhere to go that people with disabilities frequent to have fun, socialize, and so on, would be a huge step forward in that process.
Whether my goal of building a recreation center ever becomes a reality or not, I hope our efforts to keep up in the mainstream of society doesn't cause us to forget the importance of our own community. Or, to put it in the words of Jimmy Curran, founder of disABLE The Brand, I think creating more opportunities for kids with disabilities -- young and young at heart -- to just play together would be a great way to disable our limits.