A young man with a disability makes an outsized contribution to society
By Andrea Morisette Grazzini
Andrea Morisette Grazzini, Burnsville, is a writer and researcher.
David is a crooked young man, maybe 30 years old. He wears a helmet and clearly has some sort of neurological damage. His speech is limited and comes with difficulty; his reactions are slow and labored. His gait seems clumsy and uneven.
But David is a man of passion. In the simple act of engaging his energies, David continually acts as a catalyst for many other people, producing powerful outcomes for all. It's a sight to see him in action.
Not least because boy, can David shoot.
His passion is basketball. But some people would never stop to watch. This is a problem, because the failure to notice gifts like David's can lead to things like budget cuts for services to people like him.
In fact, for a long time nobody noticed. Not necessarily because they were being unkind. Perhaps they were trying not to stare. But by ignoring David they missed out on what he has to offer. With a little support, David was woven into some pickup games made up of teens, kids and the occasional adult.
He can't break to the net, isn't the best guard. And he far prefers offense to defense. Sometimes he seems confused and, during check, takes the ball when it's the other team's.
But David laughs and cheers — even trash talks, a bit. He plays hard, too. Make no mistake: David means to win. In short, he has fun that's so infectious, all who play with him have fun, too.
It helps that David doesn't lack for confidence. He's proud of his abilities in basketball and he allows his capacities for leadership to show, too, in his quirky and charming way. Like a gentleman, he escorts others onto the court: burly young men, shy preschoolers, middle-aged moms whom he takes by the arm. He succeeds in melting their polite defenses by flattering them with his full-on attention. Before they know it, they're playing pickup basketball with David.
What becomes clear is that David is good. Remember, he has an excellent shot. But just as unexpected is David's gift for getting people in touch with their own goodness, too.
When they play with David, their own games become stronger, and so does their character. They notice each other more, and are more prone to pass. They're less aggressive, but less self-conscious, too. They try little things they normally wouldn't. It's as though they're thinking: "Hey, if David can try, why can't I try, too?" They develop stronger basketball skills — and, most strikingly, more powerfully — truly impressive social skills.
They cheer for each other more. They build on each other's strengths more, too, dissolving the lines between misfits and mavens, as all develop from imperfect individuals (as all people are) into team players.
The likelihood these players would ever willingly engage with each other on their own is about zero.
But remember, David has serious challenges. Were he not supported by social services, including the aide who drives him from a nearby group home to the basketball court and sits courtside watching him, David wouldn't be able to engage his passions.
Indeed, there are communities who would seek to restrict not only his care, but would go further and refuse to support the cost of his community health club membership, writing it off as too frivolous for a man in his "condition."
Some fight to keep group homes like the one David lives in out of their area, for fear David or others could harm their children or because they think it would cost too much. Others disown any responsibility for the care of David and others like him, pushing their needs off to unknown and unidentified others, hoping the problems will go away if they are just ignored.
Many policymakers fail to even see David and others like him as worth their time. If they believe that the business climate is more worthy of their attention, they should remember that throwing a few more dollars at David might be a good way to invest in future political and corporate executives' skills.
Day after day on basketball courts, developing leaders are learning one of two things: either how to work together with those who are different, or how to gang up as well-homogenized bullies.
Without David to bring them together, these different players would likely never engage with one another. David makes it happen, and then so do they: growing together by engaging their abilities and disabilities. Led by a simple, imperfect young man.