Disabled Young Man is a Citizen Star

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Also published at Minnesota Public Radio.

© 2012 Andrea Morisette Grazzini

David is a crooked young man, maybe 30. He wears a helmet and clearly he has some sort of neurological damage. His speech is limited, and comes with difficulty; his reactions are slow and labored. His gait seems clumsy, it’s very uneven.

David at the Special Olympics

David at the Special Olympics

But David is a man of passion and in the simple act of engaging his energies David catalyzes other people, empowering all around him. One can’t help but imagine that David would be a star in the eyes of theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, who also happens to be disabled.

Hawking, the star narrator of the Empowerment-themed Paralympics Opening Ceremony recently, would know. “However difficult life may seem,” Professor Hawking instructed 60,000 people gathered in a London stadium to watch disabled athletes, “there is always something you can do and succeed at.”

He should see David in action. Not least because boy, can David shoot!  Believe it or not, his passion is basketball. Though most people would never stop to watch him play. This is a problem, because not noticing gifts like David’s in action leads to things like budget cuts for services to people like him.

He can’t break to the net, isn’t the best guard. And far prefers offense to defense. Sometimes he seems confused and, during check, takes the ball when it’s the other teams.

But David laughs and cheers–even trash talks a bit. Plays hard, too. Make no mistake: David means to win.  In short: he has fun that’s so infectious, all who play with him have fun, too. It should come as no surprise that his rag-tag teams win more often than not.

It helps that David doesn’t lack for confidence.  He’s proud of his abilities for basketball and allows his capacities for leadership to show, too, in his characteristically quirky and unavoidably charming way. He’s taken to escorting others: burly young men, shy preschoolers, middle-aged moms by the arm like a gentleman onto the court. Succeeding in breaking through their polite defenses by flattering them with his full-on attentions. Before they know it, they’re playing pick-up basketball with David.

What becomes clear is that David is good. Remember, he has an excellent shot. But just as unexpected is David’s gift for getting people in touch with their own goodness, too.

Disabled basketball player Jason McElwain and his high school team

Disabled basketball player Jason McElwain and his high school team

Playing with him other players’ games–and characters, too—are visibly strengthened.  They notice each other more, and are more prone to pass. They’re less aggressive; but less self-conscious, too. They try little things they normally wouldn’t. It’s as though they’re thinking: “Hey, if David can try, why can’t I, too?” They develop stronger basketball skills. And, most strikingly, more powerfully–truly impressive social skills.

They cheer for each other much more. As they do, they build on each others strengths more, too: constructing a mutually-reinforcing net of connections between all that dissolves the lines between misfits and mavens, as all develop from imperfect individuals (as all people are) into team players. Together.

Let’s be clear: the likelihood these players would ever willingly engage with each other, no less with a person as obviously different and seemingly disabled as David on their own is, let’s face it: about zero.

There’s another detail that should not go unnoticed in this unexpected glory-story.

Remember, David has serious challenges. Were he not supported by social services, including the aide who drives him from a nearby group home to the basketball court and sits court-side watching him, David wouldn’t be able to engage his passions.

Indeed, there are communities who would seek to restrict not only his care, but would go further and refuse to support the cost of his community health club membership, writing it off as too frivolous for a man in his “condition.”

Some fight to keep group homes like the one David lives in out of their area, for fear David or others could harm their children or, again, would cost too much. Others disown any responsibility for the care of David and others like him. Pushing their needs off to unknown and unidentified others, with little knowledge of what trials David’s family and others face, hoping the problems David and so many other real (and gifted) people like him will go away if they are just ignored.

Many policymakers fail to even see David and others like him as worth their time. Tied, as much of it is, to corporations, and so busy fighting for tax-breaks for billionaires and such, it never dawns on them that throwing a few more dollars at David might be a good way to invest in future political and corporate executive’s skills.

They forget that day after day on basketball courts they don’t see, developing leaders are learning one of two things: either how to work together with different others, or how to gang up as well-homogenized bullies.

If it were left up to people like these, David would be lucky to play a little basketball on an isolated driveway. Let alone bring his gifts for bringing out others’ abilities in shared communities. Without David’s passionate actions bringing them together, these many different players would likely never engage with one another. Except that David makes it happen, and then, so do they: growing together by engaging their abilities and disabilities—some quite clear, others less visible but still there—by making a simple game happen.

Led by a simple, imperfect young man. For his part, David could care less about superficial appearances and social norms. It’s as if he knows better, and like the disabled scientist Hawking does, knows far more than first physical appearances suggest. As Hawking put it in his Opening Ceremony comments, “We are all different, there is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being, but we share the same human spirit.”

Stephen Hawking, at the 2012 Paralympics

Stephen Hawking, at the 2012 Paralympics

Spirit. Yes, David has that in spades.

Perhaps more could learn lessons by paying less attention to superficial measures of deeply flawed methods of social power. And more attention to real people of lasting power, like David; and Stephen Hawking, who says, “What is important is that we can create. This creativity can take many forms, from physical achievement to theoretical physics.” Or from basketball to pro-social genius.

It seems not only would they grow, but they’d have a lot more fun while they were at it, too. Something we all need more of if we are to succeed together. Like (reframing here a bit) the imperfectly perfect David—and, those privileged enough to play with him.

Remember, they usually win. All they need is a little support.

Andrea Morisette Grazzinis work has influenced numerous local, national and global conversations on cross-sector collaboration.  She co-founded the tech-company Peoplenet Communications Corporation in 1993.  And founded the cross-partisan initiative DynamicShift in 2009.


  1. Richard Negri
    Posted 4 Sep ’12 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed your article on David, who truly sounds like a gifted young man.

    However, I must take you to task on your general indictment of policymakers and Corporations. It is one of the problems writers have, they tend to generalize. Not ALL policymakers or Corporations are working on how to get tax breaks for the rich. Do you know the amount that Corporations give to charity? Look at the Targets, the Apples, the Microsofts, and even the Donaldson Company. There is a long list.

    There is no question, the needs are great for too many people, unfortunately.

    I also become upset when people/writers/commentators say that all Muslims are terroists. IT ISN’T TRUE. Neither is a general indictment of policymakers or corporations. To me, it is akin to political retoric.

    Dick Negri

  2. J Zahn
    Posted 11 Feb ’13 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Brilliant article!!

    “Developing leaders are learning one of two things: either how to work together with different others, or how to gang up as well-homogenized bullies”.

    “We are ALL different, there is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being, but we share the same human spirit.” ~ Steven Hawking

    Now that we know this, It is time to allow pro-social geniuses to contribute to making us better humans.

    Maybe it is time to stop making visionary geniuses ride in the back of our ‘bus’, while we place myopics in our ‘driver seat’.

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