In her poem “Human Families,” one of Maya Angelou’s lines is “We are more alike my friends than we are unalike.”
The trip was more than thirty years ago, but because the lesson I learned was so profound, in many ways it feels like it was just last week. I was in high school and the sports team that I was on for people with cerebral palsy traveled to a regional competition in Fort Worth every year. That weekend was the first time I had traveled as part of that team, and except for a few years at summer camp, at that point, I had rarely traveled without my family.
Excitement brewed within me as I got on one of the vans to make the six-hour trip. Missing a day of school was simply a bonus. I had worked out hard for the previous few months in several events, and I was hoping I would do well enough to qualify for the national cerebral palsy games later that summer.
As soon as we hit the road everyone began to relax a bit. Since I was in the passenger’s seat up front, almost immediately I heard “Hey Lorraine, turn up the radio. I love this song!” We all began to sing along with the music (’80s tunes are still my favorite) and as the miles passed, jackets came off, snacks came out and several lively conversations were taking place simultaneously.
At the motel, I was rooming with some of the other female athletes. Their cerebral palsy was not quite as severe as mine, so they were ambulatory and both were only affected on one side of their body. Therefore, they both walked slowly, with a pronounced limp, and had trouble using one of their arms. One of the girls wanted to call her parents to tell them we had arrived safely. These were the days before cell phones, and I assisted her in dialing the phone number. Then she went to take a shower and she was in the bathroom for a very long time.
The next morning the team had breakfast together. The coffee shop in the motel had a breakfast special. You know the type. Eggs any way you want them, hashbrowns, bacon or sausage and toast. The coaches suggested that is what we all order. Most of us were good with that. Except one of the star athletes. He just wanted some buttered toast. He never ate much in the morning.
The whole day was filled with sports events. Track and field. Weightlifting. Bocci. Wheelchair soccer. Since we all were affected by cerebral palsy, each athlete participated in various events that matched their level of ability. Whenever it was possible, we watched each other and cheered each other on. Some of us were very loud. Some showed their support more quietly.
After two days of intense competition, most of us were ready for a break. The dance on the second night was a good time. Since it was a regional competition I met people there from other parts of Texas and several other states. One of the things that made the dance fun was that we all danced to the best of our ability, and did so with gusto. Nobody criticized what we couldn’t do. There was one person with us who did not attend the dance that night. He had pushed himself so hard in the previous two days that he stayed in his motel room with several ice packs all over his body.
On the way home the next day, a wonderful thought occurred to me. Yes, we all had cerebral palsy, and that meant there were some things we couldn’t do in the same manner as some people might. However, disability or not, we all did some common things as well.
Who doesn’t know a girl (or maybe several) who takes too long in the bathroom?
Who doesn’t know someone who likes to sing along with ’80’s music?
Who doesn’t know someone who doesn’t like to eat much in the morning?
Who doesn’t know people who are extremely vocal in supporting their friends while also knowing others who show their support more quietly?
Who doesn’t know someone who pushes themselves so hard physically that it gets to the point that they have to cancel their plans so that they can recover?
And who doesn’t know someone who dances in ways that some would consider unconventional?
Being part of that sports team in high school is one of the experiences that taught me to focus more on my abilities than anything else. And in trying to do that, I have discovered in the ways that matter, we are all more the same than different. I do many things that people without disabilities do also. Go figure.
On this particular issue, Maya Angelou and I are certainly on the same page.