Monday, November 29, 2010

Hey, You lookin' at me?

A few months ago I wrote about an inspirational biography I read called The Game of My Life by Jason McElwain. 'J-Mac', as he is known by friends and family, diagnosed at a young age with autism, was able to overcome the hand he was dealt and played varsity high school basketball with a team that went all the way to the New York state championships. Though not typically the kind of story I gravitate toward, The Game of My Life was given to me as a gift by someone I respect a great deal, so I read it and was pleasantly surprised.

The experience with that book then, most certainly led me to consider reading Double Take, by former X-Games athlete Kevin Michael Connolly, a young man who was born without legs. Talented in so many other ways (accomplished athlete, photographer and writer), it is perhaps his only deficiency.

In an episode of the popular HBO sitcom 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' the main character Larry walks into a public restroom and has a colorful conversation with a man in a wheelchair. It is a conversation that many of us have wanted to have with a disabled person but probably haven't had the guts to: " Why do you get so many special privileges?" Indeed, so-called handicapped people do seem to get an unnecessary level of special treatment especially considering that they represent such a small portion of the general population; Bigger, more spacious stalls in the bathroom; All of the good parking spots; a go ahead lane in the lines at the airport, DMV and Disneyland. Where there are those who definitely need the extra assistance (Stephen Hawking can cut into my line any time he wants), the efforts to make the world more wheelchair friendly have definitely led to more than a few abuses of the system. It's no wonder that later in the same episode of ‘Curb’ Larry gets angry at a man for parking in a handicapped spot who has no obvious trouble walking.

"I-I-I'm allowed!" Screams the man, pointing at his blue and white placard. “I have a st-st-st-stutter!”

I don't know how Kevin Michael Connolly feels about handicapped stickers or weather or not he and his friends use them to advantageously get better parking spots at Wal Mart. Since he was born without legs I would certainly say he falls under the category of people in this world who should benefit from the perks our society affords the disabled. But after reading his book I think he would like for nothing more than to be thought of as able-bodied, that the values and rewards that come only from hard work and discipline can be superceded when we are allowed to take shortcuts that even though accepted by society in general may upon further review be more harmful than helpful. It is a lesson that even those of us with all of our capacities can learn.

Still, Double Take is a coming of age story first and foremost, one in almost cliché in nature, in which a thoughtful young man travels to Europe in order to find enlightenment and his place in the world. For someone born differently than the rest of us Kevin is acutely aware that people are always staring at him. Admit it! If you were to see a man moving down the street without any appendages below his waist you would probably stare too! As it turns out the enlightened Europeans treat him like a beggar, as it is customary in many countries to offer money to the disabled. But before you puff your chest up too big, don’t we sort of do the same thing here in the states? After all, Connolly’s family never once had to pay for Kevin's prosthetic legs: The community did.

Kevin just wanted to be a normal kid, so he rejected the legs. And he rejected the wheelchair too, opting for what any normal suburban kid might choose as a way of getting around: A skateboard. And on that skateboard he wheeled around Europe where he spent his time attempting to be an artist, falling in and out of love, staying in hostels, and getting drunk.

In the end, if it had been Kevin Connolly Larry David had run into in that fictional ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ world Kevin's response to the old grouch might have gone something like this: “…I don’t think of myself as ‘disabled’. As I interpret the word, you are only disabled if you are incapable of overcoming the challenges presented in any given situation. Being disabled is…a matter of choice. Anything that you try to hide from the world also imposes a limit on you.”

With words like that, we should all have blue and white placards in our car.

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