Thursday, January 14, 2010

Pity and Competitiveness

There's a story floating around as one of those annoying chain letters. I don't know if it's a true story, or if it was made up. Either way, what I have to say still applies.
The story is from the perspective of the father of 'Shay', a developmentally disabled boy. Shay was playing baseball with some other kids, and out of pity, the opposing team all decided to throw the game in order to let Shay win. The actual story drags it out a lot more, but that's basically what happened.
There's a lot of things I could say about that story. But the topic of this entry is how the opposing team all assumed that Shay, if he realized he was by far the worst player on his team, would feel unhappy about that.
Now, if Shay was an undiagnosed disabled child, chances are high that they'd be right. I know that I felt bad about being so much poorer at sports than my classmates (although that was mostly because they teased me). Of course, if I realized the opposing team was deliberately making it easier for me, I'd be offended, but setting things up so I could get some degree of success in the game would be a good idea.
But from my volunteering experience, I'd say that most developmentally disabled people don't react this way. It wouldn't occur to them to think of themselves as better or worse at sports than another person, or if it did, they wouldn't put the same sort of value judgements on it. Not that these kids don't realize that they're different from others, or aren't able to make comparisons between peoples' abilities. It just doesn't seem to matter to them. Everyone tries to do their best, and no one cares whether X's best falls well short of Y's best.
I think it's a cultural thing. A lot of people don't realize this, but someone who is diagnosed with a disability in childhood grows up in a somewhat different culture than someone who is considered normal in childhood. Imagine a child getting therapy once a week with a bunch of other children with a mixed bunch of disabilities. In the therapy programs I've seen, it would be unheard of to give out a reward or praise to the kid who does whatever task the best. Sure, they give out rewards, but individually, not as a competitive group activity. Whereas I've seen plenty of regular schools do that.
In addition, since most parents want their kids to have high self-esteem, parents of disabled kids usually adjust their praise to focus more on effort than on outcome, or else praise kids based on how what they just achieved compares to their usual performance. In cases where the child's disability affects certain areas but not others, they often tell their children that their strengths are in the really important skills (such as Torey Haydn telling a dyslexic, highly empathetic student that 'you can't read words, but you can read hearts, and that's what's really important').
Lastly, many disabled kids hang out in groups of friends with wider ranges of ability than there are in most nondisabled friendship groups, because disabled kids often have disabled friends and disabilities are very variable. This means that among their friends, they learn to deal with diversity in ability a lot more than nondisabled kids do.
In the volunteering program I worked in, there was one girl - only one kid - who was self-conscious about her disability. I often saw her refuse to do physical activities because other people were watching. She was new to the program, and was very mildly disabled, and although I don't know her story, I wouldn't be surprised if she'd only been recently diagnosed. The rest of the kids (those who interacted with the other kids) never acted self-conscious. For example, I worked with a girl whose legs seemed to be different lengths, which meant she couldn't run very fast. Once, her and another girl decided to have a race, and the other girl easily left her far behind. She didn't get frustrated, instead she simply laughed because she liked running.


Blogger Adelaide Dupont said...

I did have games set up for me.

On one ocassion, in 1994, the house captain helped me with my serving so that I could throw the ball instead of punching it.

We were playing newcombe, a modified form of volleyball.

And Shay's story is Glurge, at least what Snopes the Urban Myths site calls it.

Shaya the baseball player (updated November 2009)

Ten years since this story was told in a book.

Instructive to compare and contrast with real examples.

10:24 PM  

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