In 1923, Babe Ruth batted his way into baseball history by breaking the record for the most home runs in a season. But there’s another, less-often cited record he also broke that year: he struck out more than any other player. Conventional wisdom says he achieved the former because he wasn’t afraid of the latter.
Therein lies a valuable lesson about what it takes to swing for the fences, whether literally or figuratively. But, for some youth, it’s a message that doesn’t always get imparted, despite caring adults’ best intentions. I was thinking about this recently while listening to an NPR interview with a mother who recently wrote the Huffington Post article, “My Child with a Disability is Not My Hero.”
In the post, Sarah Sweatt Orsborn shared her discomfort with the praise heaped upon her daughter Claire, who has spina bifida, for just doing what’s normal and natural for her. Orsborn fears that it may do Claire, and other children with disabilities, more harm than good by conveying that they are held to a different, often lower set of expectations.
She makes an excellent point — one that guides our youth-focused work in the Office of Disability Employment Policy. Kids with disabilities are kids first and foremost. When they’re labeled “heroes,” there is a danger they will grow up thinking average is miraculous and thus not reach higher. Rather, they — like all youth — should be expected to continually challenge themselves. Moreover, they should learn that, along the way, it’s okay to fail. As Orsborn writes:
I want her to have the beautiful freedom to be a complex, complicated human being who both overcomes challenges and makes mistakes, who can be joyful and angry and every other emotion there is, with no pressure to be anyone but herself. She’s no hero — she’s something much more magical and mundane: a little girl, full of untold potential, just like her sister.
As Orsborn also notes, it’s often parents who communicate this unintended subtext. As a parent myself, I know it’s hard to let a child take risks and even to fail. But as a person born with a disability, I also know how important it is to do so. The best thing my parents did for me was convey that I was not special — or at least no more so than anyone else. Like Orsborn, they expected me to live up to my potential and that meant sometimes striking out. This may have come more naturally to them because, unlike most people with disabilities, I was not the only person in my family with one; my sister Peggy is also blind.
In the ODEP-funded Campaign for Disability Employment’s “Because” public service announcement, Ford Martin, a former high school Lacrosse player who has a congenital condition affecting his legs, sums this principle up succinctly. “Because my coach treated me like everybody else,” he says, “I led my high school team to two championships.” Did he ever “strike out” along the way? You bet. It’s part and parcel with hitting it out of the park.
Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.