Posts Tagged disability
Early next month, a young football player from Central Florida will have his hand measured at the NFL Combine. He won’t get to choose which hand is measured; he only has one hand to offer, and that might be his biggest strength.
If you haven’t followed Shaquem Griffin’s journey to this point, consider following him from the combine onward. It’s a story made for a feel-good movie. He was born with a defect to his left hand. Because they weren’t able to rehabilitate it and it caused him extreme pain as a young child, his parents opted to have the hand amputated. For most, that would end a football odyssey. Not Shaquem. He thrived without his hand.
His twin brother also possessed rare football talent, and both earned scholarships to the University of Central Florida. Some believe that Shaquem was offered a scholarship in order to sign his brother, and for a while, that looked like the case. Shaquill thrived almost immediately, while Shaquem redshirted his first year and saw only limited action for the next couple of years. Last year, because he didn’t redshirt and his eligibility was exhausted, Shaquill was drafted in the third round by the Seattle Seahawks, while Shaquem’s NFL dream seemed in doubt, mostly because of his missing hand.
Shaquem answered these doubts with an outstanding senior season, leading the team in quarterback sacks. He didn’t have a bad junior season either, leading the team in solo tackles, tackles for loss and quarterback sacks. Despite the on-field success, the missing hand caused skepticism about his NFL potential. Just getting invited to the combine was a huge success and undoubtedly, a huge relief for Shaquem.
When he arrives at the combine, evaluators will measure his arm length, height and weight, in addition to his hand size. He’ll also participate in a number of drills and athletic tests – all in an effort to provide data that NFL teams can use when deciding if and when to draft him. Once their seasons were over, most of the 336 invitees devote themselves to maximize their combine results and thereby, increase their draft value. Some even undergo procedures to improve their measurables, like their hand size.
As an executive recruiter who spends his day judging professional qualifications, I understand the importance of metrics in making decisions that affect an organization’s success. Like employers who make hiring mistakes, if teams draft the wrong player or pay too much for a player, the consequences can be dire; however, Shaquem Griffin shows how judging others isn’t fail-proof. The x-factor that metrics don’t reveal is what’s on the inside.
If NFL executives pass on Shaquem, I believe that they’ll miss an opportunity to have a unique player with unique strengths on their team. I believe that it’s possible that Shaquem’s missing hand is actually a strength. Yes, it can affect his ability to shed blocks and make tackles; however, I suspect that it has also made his drive and desire stronger.
Many people with handicaps have gone on to achieve great things, not despite their handicaps, but BECAUSE of their handicaps. There are a number of reasons for this. As examples:
- A person with a disability is often more imaginative and ingenuitive, because they must overcome and adapt when their disability prevents them from doing things the normal way.
- A person with a disability is often more emotionally durable, because they must persevere through abnormal levels of failure and frustration to achieve their goals.
- A person with a disability often has a high level of gratitude, because life has taught them to never take anything, including their health, for granted.
I realize that I am making a lot of assumptions about Shaquem, a guy that I’ve never met; however, I’ve lived with a physical handicap long enough to recognize someone who has turned a negative into a positive. I hope he gets his chance in the NFL and thrives there, but if that doesn’t happen, I believe that his experience will make him a success in whatever he does.
My kids have never skied. Because their dad gets around on the snow and ice about as well as a three-legged giraffe, we look for warmer climates for winter outings.
The ironic thing is that I have skied. In fact, I went several times as a kid when my body was much smaller and more limber. I loved flying down the slopes, feeling the cold air and warm sun on my face. Though it’s been more than 30 years, I can still vividly remember racing my dad down the slopes of Summit County, Colorado, and beating him. Recent Facebook pictures and videos of my friends and their kids on ski trips have brought those memories back.
It is frustrating to realize that I’ll never share the same memories with my kids, but I’m not jealous. I’m happy for people who are able to do things like this, and, at the same time, thankful for all that I can do.
Life has taught me that, if we get caught up wishing for things that are out of our reach, we become blinded to the blessings around us. My always-appreciative grandfather embodied that attitude.
Growing up during the Great Depression without his mother who died when he was four years old, my grandfather was on his own by age 14, stowing away on trains and getting by as a migrant farm worker in the beet fields of Western Nebraska. That harsh existence made him appreciative of the simplest things in life that most of us take for granted. Roast beef was his favorite meal, and he never used credit, even to buy a house. He was never a wealthy man, but what he had, he loved and appreciated.
My grandfather found something good in almost anything and anyone, because he knew what it was like to have nothing and no one. Sometimes, we need to experience the discomfort of limitation in order to benefit from the comfort that appreciation provides.
Recently, a good friend went on a hunt I’ve dreamed about – to New Zealand to hunt red stag. He invited me to go, but my wife and I have a lot of expenses coming up with the house and kids, so I didn’t want to spend the money on something that would benefit only me, though I absolutely have done that before.
On the day before he left, I started to send him a message that began with “I’m jealous.” It’s a cliché that many of us use when we see someone with something we want. We use that phrase without even thinking of what it implies – that someone else is experiencing joy that we feel somehow entitled to, and we’re not happy about it. When we say “I’m jealous,” we’re making it about us and our own frustrations, even if we don’t intend it that way.
Yes, I do want to hunt red stag in New Zealand, but the fact that I wasn’t going on this trip shouldn’t create the negative emotion of jealousy. In fact, it should be just the opposite. I should be happy for him, because I know how much the trip means to him, and I know that he would be happy for me if the roles were reversed. Jealousy has no place in that equation.
I thought of those things as I used the backspace key to correct my message. Mostly though, I thought about all of the blessings in my own life and how jealousy unfairly minimizes their value.
I’m not perfect, but I try never to say, “I’m jealous.” If I’m fortunate enough to catch the words before they spill out of my mouth, I use the occasion to count my blessings. I even count my limitations as blessings, because they shine a spotlight on all that I have and all that I can do.
What do you do when you win a treadmill, and you’re in a wheelchair? And it happens on national television in front of a live audience? You make a joke about it and move on, just like Danielle Perez did.
Perez recently won both a treadmill and sauna on The Price Is Right, in front of a squirming and uncomfortable live game show audience. What’s ironic is that she was probably one of the least uncomfortable people there. Living life from a wheelchair for the past 11 years after losing both of her legs in an accident, she is accustomed to making people uncomfortable and working her way through awkward situations.
Able-bodied people are often uneasy around disabled people, especially strangers. They don’t know to react to someone who looks differently from them or someone like me who moves differently. This uneasiness is no one’s fault. It’s just human nature. When we encounter another human with obvious physical struggles, we want to help, but we often don’t know how or what would be appropriate.
I see it often when I walk or roll through a room full of strangers. Many try to hide it, but I can see the emotion in their faces. Sometimes, it’s anxiety. Sometimes, it’s pity. Sometimes, it’s genuine fear.
My wife and I visited a very nice restaurant on our recent trip to Las Vegas. Though our anniversary isn’t until later this summer, we decided to celebrate early with a dinner at The Eiffel Tower Restaurant. The restaurant, which overlooks the fountains at the Bellagio, is much nicer (and more expensive) than the restaurants we usually visit, but we were celebrating, so we decided to splurge a little. On our way to the table, I tripped over my feet and fell to the ground. The spectacle that ensued captured the interest of most of the restaurant’s patrons.
Before I had a chance to register the fall and assess my situation, no fewer than four people suddenly appeared at the scene of the crash, and all tried to lift me at once. I joked that it would be nice if I could get restaurant staff to react as quickly when I need a refill on my iced tea. After I was on my feet and moving again, they hovered around me, like parents watching their toddler walk for the first time.
I imagine that The Price Is Right staff and audience felt the same way when the next prize package up was a treadmill and the randomly selected contestant sat in a wheelchair. Someone in a control room probably said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Perez felt the audience’s discomfort, and for a brief moment, thought that it might be a joke. When she realized it wasn’t, she charged forward, never losing her confidence or sense of humor. She even refused assistance and spun the famous wheel by herself. Later, when asked what she planned to do with her new treadmill, she deadpanned that she would use it in the same way most people use exercise equipment, like extra furniture.
We all have uncomfortable, frustrating or disheartening moments. Maybe we blow a presentation at work, trip over the curb and rip a hole in our pants or have someone treat us in a disrespectful manner. Like Danielle Perez, we have a choice to make at moments like these. We can lash out in bitterness or laugh it off and move on.
When we use humor to defuse tense situations, we draw people in and make them feel comfortable, and we project positive energy. When we project positive energy, we get positive returns. Not only did Perez become an instant celebrity, Jimmy Kimmel invited her to his television program and gave her a Royal Caribbean cruise.
The next time you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation and facing a choice of how to react, try using humor and positive energy. Sometimes, you just have to laugh.
note: Follow Perez on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DivaDelux
Before I met one of my wife’s best friends more than twenty years ago, she was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to climb the stairs to her second-floor apartment. I later learned that she thought I was confined to a wheelchair, because Lynda had oversold my physical limitations when she had called earlier in the week. When I walked through the apartment door, I could see the relief and pleasant surprise in her friend’s face. I’ve always relished surprising people with what I can do. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen as often these days.
Now, it’s more common for me to see concern and pity, particularly when I take my wheelchair for a spin and encounter someone I haven’t seen in a while. This is one of the biggest reasons I resisted buying the wheelchair and continue to resist using it. I want to remain the guy who beats the odds and surprises people, not the poor guy in the wheelchair being pushed by his wife.
I completely understand the reactions I get when people see me in the chair for the first time, and though these reactions don’t offend me in any way, I do notice them. The first time it happened was earlier this year when I was in the airport waiting to catch a flight to Chicago for a speaking engagement. Waiting at the same gate was a client from my previous business. He and I had become friends, but hadn’t seen each other for several years. I could see his mind processing the scene in the brief moment between when we noticed each other and when we greeted each other. I imagine that it went like this, “Hey, that’s Mitch, but he’s in a wheelchair. Is that really Mitch in a wheelchair?”
It was the first time in months that I had used the wheelchair, but travel was one of the main reasons I bought the chair, so I was using it that day. I could have stood up and walked toward him, but we were getting ready to board, and doing so would have been inconvenient for my wife who was traveling with me and already burdened with a carry-on bag. Instead, we exchanged pleasantries, never addressing the “elephant in the room.”
Now that it’s football season, I pretty much use my wheelchair every Friday night, which means that I’m being pushed around in front of our community – our friends, our children’s friends and their parents. That’s pretty humbling, and I find myself wanting to wear a sign that says, “I’m riding now, but be in my gym at 8 am tomorrow morning to see me walk unassisted and push heavy weights.” Unfortunately, it’s more likely that the image of me in the chair will be what these people take home with them.
Context and Confidence
A few weeks ago, in the week before his first varsity football game, my son developed a large, ugly blister on his forehead near his hairline. It was likely caused by irritation from his football helmet. Whatever the cause, it caused him much anguish, as he worried about how others viewed him. As a guy who battled acne as a teenager, I could empathize, and I wanted to do everything I could to remove this challenge for him, but I couldn’t. All I could do was offer advice.
I told him that, in the grand scheme of things, the blister was but a minor, temporary inconvenience. School was going well. He had earned a starting spot for his first varsity football game, and he was enjoying a blossoming relationship with a nice young lady. Don’t let something so small as a blister rob that happiness from you, I told him, which turned out to be great advice for me too.
Most people are more supportive and understanding than we believe them to be. Their reactions might be instinctual, but the people who really matter see through whatever external flaws we fret over. In fact, I think we worry much too much about small things that we mistakenly think matter to others, and all of this worry sabotages our happiness.
Whether it is a wheelchair, blister or some other challenge, make sure that you put whatever is worrying you in its proper place, which is usually at the bottom of the Stuff that Matters list. Doing this will help you properly appreciate the blessings around you.
When I went hunting in Africa last year, I did something that I’d never done before: I requested wheelchair assistance when booking a flight. I’d always gutted out airport walking, and with my wife’s assistance, it wasn’t easy, but it was possible. My wife wasn’t going to be with me at the end of my 17-hour flight to South Africa, and I knew that my legs would be tight from sitting so long. The wheelchair worked perfectly. I sacrificed my ego to save my legs.
This month, I did it again – not the safari, but the wheelchair. And this time, I didn’t borrow it; I bought it.
I can’t remember a more gut-wrenching buying experience. It took me more than six months to hit the “Buy” button, because every time I saw a wheelchair on my computer screen, I recoiled. Guys like me aren’t supposed to be in wheelchairs. I might as well have been shopping for a coffin, because my mind wouldn’t let me see myself in either.
It wasn’t my mind making this decision. Within the last ten years, my legs decided they needed a wheelchair for long or slippery walks. I was just too stubborn to listen. Instead of swallowing my ego, I sat at home while my family went to church and sporting events in inclement weather without me. In Las Vegas recently, I sat in a hotel room and watched TV while Lynda and the kids went exploring. My world was shrinking, and while I can accept that some things are beyond my reach, I have to make sure that my ego doesn’t handicap me more than my legs do.
So I bought a wheelchair.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. More than thirty years ago, I sat in a doctor’s office and heard him tell me that I would likely need braces, crutches and even a wheelchair as I aged, and my joints began to show the effects of my awkward walking motion. At the time, I was running hills and bench-pressing nearly 300 pounds. I heard him, but convinced myself that my physical regimen and resolve would prevail. That was the hope I clung to as my joints stiffened.
Ironically, I’ve never been stronger or more muscular. That part, I could control. Stiff, aching joints are a completely different story. Like the doctors said, you can’t walk like I do and not damage your joints. With further irony, all that running and bike riding I did hoping to play high school football likely accelerated the damage that slows me down today.
So I bought a wheelchair.
Now, instead of worrying that it might snow during one of my son’s football games or my daughter’s basketball games, I know that I’ll be there enjoying these irreplaceable experiences that are passing way too quickly. Neither snow nor my ego will keep me from that.
It’s still not easy. Riding in a wheelchair is a humbling experience. You feel apart from the world of the walking. Very few strangers give you more than a glance. You wonder what others are thinking. Riding in a wheelchair tests your self-worth, and I’m finally at a point where my self-worth trumps my misplaced pride.
So I bought a wheelchair.
“I really don’t want to be here,” a guy told me recently during one of my workouts. I thought about him today, on my sixth consecutive day away from the gym.
Unlike yesterday, I brought my gym bag to work with me today, hopeful that the leg I injured over the weekend had healed to the point where a trip to the gym would help more than it hindered. Instead, common sense prevailed – it’s been doing that more as I age – and I decided to rest the leg another day, so I don’t prolong my recovery.
Ironically, I injured my leg by falling on my way into church on Saturday night. That one stung, but not nearly as bad as the second fall. There is almost always a second – and sometimes even third – fall, as my already weak legs wobble a little more. Fear of the third fall has me walking like a clumsy solider through a minefield, and it’s kept me out of the gym and church.
The gym and church are two places we often grudgingly go or, worse yet, make excuses not to go. I know – I’ve been there. Now, I want to go and can’t. God loves irony.
Most of us are going to experience that irony at one time or another. We’ll long to reconnect with someone we chased out of our life years ago. We’ll wish to recapture moments that passed us as we distracted ourselves with trivial concerns. We’ll ache for abilities and opportunities that age has taken from us.
Devon Walker knows this.
Former Tulane football player Devon Walker’s life suddenly changed in the second game of the 2012 season. An undersized walk-on, he had worked his way into a starting position on the team, and was even a team captain. 2012 was his senior season, and he was eager to take his game to the next level. Unfortunately, he suffered a career-ending spinal cord injury in that game, and has been paralyzed from the neck down since.
Walker was recently awarded the Disney Spirit Award, given to college football’s most inspirational figure. He was a very worthy recipient, because he hasn’t let his circumstances get him down. After a year in grueling rehab, he resumed classes in pursuit of a degree in cell and molecular biology, with designs on attending medical school. Pursuing such a demanding academic program while competing on an athletic team – as a walk-on no less – is impressive enough. That he continues undeterred after such a devastating injury is simply amazing.
While some of his able-bodied classmates grudgingly drag themselves out of bed to attend class, wishing they were elsewhere, Devon struggles through his morning routine for different reasons. Because of his near total paralysis, it takes him more than two hours just to get out of bed and dressed. He needs help to do almost anything physical, even eating and brushing his teeth, yet he attends class. As much as possible, he attends all the practices and activities of the football team too.
I don’t know Devon Walker, but I know that he is human, which means that he is sometimes prone to weakness, like all of us. It’s safe to say that – before his injury – he probably approached some of the more difficult practices in Louisiana’s heat with dread, and he was probably tempted to skip class. Now, ironically, with multiple excuses to do both, he doesn’t.
My leg is healing, and I’ll be back in the gym and in a pew soon. This brief time-out only strengthened my resolve. Is there anything in your life that you complain about, but would truly miss if it were taken from you?