What a Ball Game Taught Me About Inclusion and the Meaning of 'Normal'
On Sunday, I went to a baseball game with some friends. Our time together could be described as normal — at least as I see it.
There were four of us: My close friend and two guys — my friend’s 21-year-old son with Down syndrome and his 17-year-old friend with autism. Hanging out with people with disabilities is often thought-provoking for me, so I had to write this one down. Even though I work in disability services, study disability and socialize with people with disabilities, I am continuously challenged to think about interactions between people with and without disabilities in new ways.
So much of the conversation in the disability rights movement, specifically intellectual and cognitive disability here, is about social inclusion. That sneaky social inclusion that can sometimes look like it’s been achieved until the curtain is drawn back and social fears are exposed.
Social inclusion isn’t an event or charity. It isn’t solely people with and without disabilities sharing social space. It goes beyond acceptance and tolerance. Social inclusion is welcoming a person we see as different from us into friendship and the community. Social inclusion creates a culture that’s informed, understanding, inviting and openly transforms society’s definition of “normalcy.”
The game went like this:
I was picked up by the troupe of three, with the guys in the back singing and cheering in anticipation for the game along the way. My job was GPS navigation for the hour-long ride. At every turn, the guys gave me applause from the back seat and raucous cheering as though I was participating in a game myself.
Upon arrival to the stadium, my friend’s son asked me to wear a team t-shirt he brought for me. Unfortunately, it was my rival’s team and I had to politely decline, but embraced his idealism that we would all walk in wearing the same shirt so the team could feel supported. Isn’t it normal to want everyone to sport your team’s apparel?
During the Game
After regularly turning to see both boys were with us as we wove through the crowd, we made it our seats. We watched almost two innings until we got too hot and hungry to stay seated, so we hit the concourse for food. The 17-year-old needed help paying, so I stood with him in line for support. When he went up to the counter, he took his time, chatting with the food service employee for a solid minute before ordering. Despite the long line behind us, they talked about his custom t-shirt and upcoming birthday. The employee was not only patient, but sincere in his enjoyment of the conversation. They both smiled and talked. No rushing. No wandering eyes or looking at me for an escape. It was beautiful.
We enjoyed lunch in the concourse. On our way back to the seats, we stopped at the team store. After trying on a few pricey ball caps, my friend artfully convinced her son that socks were the way to go! He agreed and spent several minutes choosing his perfect pair. And perfect they were: grey-and-white speckled knee-highs complete with his favorite player’s face etched on the shin. His friend got a pair, too. With bellies full of delectable stadium grease and two pairs of freshly-minted baseball socks, our clan was ready to watch more of the game. Isn’t it normal to eat greasy stadium food, make friends with fellow fans and rally the crowd during a ninth inning rally?
The renewed energy from the lunch and shopping break made us all attentive and spirited fans for the late-game push. The guys led chants in our section and hardly stopped moving, desperate to get themselves up on the Jumbotron. Nearing the end of the game, the couple behind us tapped me on the shoulder. “We got a free hot dog with our meal. Does he want it?” motioning to my friend’s son. We asked and he gladly accepted. We chatted for the rest of the game. When we thanked them, they instead thanked my friend’s son for being the best fan in the section.
It was a rallying end, but the home team lost. My friend’s son felt devastated for his team and it was a slow, exasperating walk out of the stadium. Our efforts to rally his feelings about the outcome were interrupted by a massive storm which hit suddenly before we reached the stadium’s exit. The lightning and thunder were close and the rain was heavy. We would have to run outside in the rain to get to the car.
My friend’s son became overwhelmed and frightened by the cracking lightening and had a small meltdown. A concerned security guard noticed and brought the guys trash bags to cover their bodies. We crafted head and arm holes, gripped hands and jogged our way to the car together. We laughed at the moment, took off the bags and drove home in the spitting storm. Isn’t it normal to be slightly uncomfortable in a lightning storm?
During and since the game, I’ve been thinking about the word “normal.”
My close friend’s son has Down syndrome. This is evident to all who meet him. Yet his Down syndrome is not what draws people to him. Knowing him for seven years, I have seen it. He does not make friends because of Down syndrome or receive free hot dogs because of Down syndrome. It may get him noticed at first glance, but what keeps eyes on him is his essence. Personality. Gumption. Insatiable enthusiasm and love of life. An all-in commitment to his emotions. These aren’t characteristics of Down syndrome. These are characteristics of a person.
We know people like this, both with and without Down syndrome. He is just as “normal” as any 21-year-old guy who loves baseball and hates storms. My hope is that all people who come to find themselves in the company of someone like my friend’s son recognize they are experiencing a fuller scope of humanity.
We chuckled at our time together as my friend shared, “It’s only one extra chromosome. The other 46 are all ours!”
Social inclusion shatters what “normal” is. Normal becomes making friends with strangers who are also different, chatting it up with another fan who is aware of your shared love for a sports team, asking for help and seeing a need to offer help. It becomes free hot dogs, a trash bag raincoat and the wacky adventure that was this ball game.
I went to a baseball game with some friends. Our time together was normal — don’t you think?
Getty image by Lightfield Studios.