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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Non-Conformity or Natural Human Diversity

This week's article by Christopher Kliewer struck a very personal chord with me.

I believe my first moment as a teacher came in 1987, when as a 16 year-old lifeguard at the MacColl field YMCA, I was offered the chance to teach a swim lesson with an outside group from the Spurwink School.  Every Wednesday, for 10 weeks that summer, a group of 10 severe/profound students, and their staff, showed up at the pool, and I got 90 minutes to work with them.  Three of the children were diagnosed autistic, two had Cerebral Palsy, two others had Spina Bifida, and the other three were Down's Syndrome.  Before the first lesson was over, I knew I was in for a very special summer.

A combination of things were in play that first day, the staff that worked with these kids were amazing, I was 16 and knew nothing and was therefore very impressionable, and we all loved the water.  The first thing I learned, was that these were not children with disabilities.  They were children.  The second thing I learned was that the water provided them with an exceptional medium in which to move and communicate.  As straps and harness were removed, and bodies entered the pool, their faces and their voices lit up.  I was blown away by the energy, enthusiasm, and excitement, and before I knew it, our time was up.

Max, My Coaching Idol

This group of students were secluded in their year-round school, but the staff that worked with them did not accept these limitations, one of the gentleman told me they put about 15000 miles on the van each summer, we were just one stop.  As the summer progressed, I integrated families and children from the pool club, and summer campers into our weekly time together, and without having the words for it, witnessed those young people "claim significance through dialogue" and "contribute to society's mosaic."  What they did was change my life, and the lives of the other kids I introduced to them.  The differences they had in their minds and bodies, made no difference to us, because of their spirits.  They were kids, we were kids, and the last three weeks of the summer when we had water polo matches with our integrated group were unforgettable.  We had started alone, in the zero entry, shallow end of the kiddie pool, and finished in the 10 foot well, with an audience of over a hundred, as we celebrated a championship in which everyone won.

I had plenty of interactions with special needs individuals before that summer, but that was the time in my life when I recognized that the special needs were mine, not theirs, and I lost my labels, and thank goodness, have never been the same since.


  1. Brian, I love your line, "I recognized that the special needs were mine, not theirs." This is such a simple statement but has huge implications. Like I mentioned in my post, this exemplifies the social definition of disability. Society identifies "disability" because "able-bodied" individuals have typically held the power. Because being able-bodied is what is valued, anyone who doesn't fit this category is considered to have "special needs." However, as you point out, there is natural human diversity and the kids you coached were just kids. As an able-bodied individual, you had special needs in seeing this kids for who they are. Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. I agree, Brit. I was going to point out the same line, as well as the "championship in which everyone won." At the Burrillville High School, they have a Unified Basketball team, in which students with disabilities, and several students without, partake in weekly basketball games against other schools. It is incredible watching their faces light up with excitement, and the comradery that exists even amongst opposing teams. Last year, I watched a player from the other team pass the ball several times after it rebounded off the backboard to one of our players, until she finally scored a basket. How incredible.