My Ringer

Posted by Clicksy | Posted in My blog | Posted on 07-01-2012

There was a 2005 movie by Searchlight called The Ringer.  The movie is about Johnny Knoxville’s character trying to rig the Special Olympics.  I wouldn’t say it’s a horrible movie, there were a few good spots.  My favorite was when Knoxville confesses what he’s trying to do to a Priest, the Priest punches him… who wouldn’t want to punch Johnny Knoxville, right?  We got it because we like Searchlight movies, they’re kind of kin to after school specials.  They tackle a lot of different subjects that mainstream movies don’t bother with.  We also heard they used mentally disabled actors, which is pretty cool.  Needless to say, their performances out shined Knoxville’s by far.

We watched it again the other day and it got me thinking about my time working with the disabled, and more specifically, the Special Olympics.  I started my work at a home for the disabled when I was 15, volunteering to coach the Olympics.  I was familiar with the place since I was a small child.  I remember when I broke my arm in kindergarten, my Mom would take me there during the day while she worked.  Through the years, two of my sisters also worked there, and later, a brother-in-law.  I remember it was a little scary when I was young.  Some people there looked a little different, but I soon learned they were just people… and often much easier to get along with than so called normal people.

Once I turned 16, I got a part time job in the Activities department.  Soon after, I became close to a girl who was pretty normal mentally, but severely physically disabled with cerebral palsy.  She was young and liked a lot of the same things I liked.. music, clothes, getting her nails done.  She couldn’t talk, she couldn’t walk, she couldn’t feed herself.  I imagined being in her shoes… how incredibly frustrating it must have been.  But she wasn’t a downer at all.  She had bad days like everyone, but for the most part, she was perky and liked to laugh.  I had a lot of pain when I was young.  Her positive attitude was a huge inspiration to me.

She communicated with a talker that was hooked up to a head switch.  The talker was sophisticated for those days.  It had a row of lights that would move through icons in blocks.  When the lights got to the right area, she would click with her head switch.  They’d then go through the rows in that block of icons, she’d click on the right row, it would go through each icon in that row until she clicked the icon she wanted.  She could spell things out, but more frequently used common phrases programmed in by the Speech department.

Her head switch also controlled her chair.  There was a directional panel by the arm rest.  When the lights lit up the direction she wanted to go in, she’d click and the chair would move. A short click and it would just move for a moment, and if she held it down it would continue moving.  The whole system was pretty problematic.  The head switch would shift around and needed frequent adjustments.  As her body would settle into the chair, or if she laughed or coughed and had a spasm, it would be pushed out of her reach.  All the same, it was an amazing system that gave her some control over her communication and movement.

My memories are foggy, but I would say after a year or two working with Olympics, I started to think about how she could participate. I talked about it with my sister and brother in law and they encouraged it.  Then I asked her, she was excited to start competing.  We started practicing with cones in the parking lot.  It was slow going, but with Special Olympics, that’s not really a problem.  People are placed into groups depending on their abilities in each event.  Because it took her a lot longer than most wheelers, she was usually placed in a class alone.

We experimented a lot each season, trying different ways she could more easily maneuver her chair through the cones… hugging them tightly making small turns, or zig zagging in longer straight lines making larger turns.  We quickly learned that one of her biggest problems was the crowds.  With cerebral palsy, spasms can be extreme.  We’d get to her turn to race and all the cheering people would make her laugh so hard that she’d spasm and push her head switch, and when she’d calm down it was out of reach from her normal sitting position.  My sister devised a genius plan…

We got the staff and other residents involved in her practices.  They’d cheer really loud, dance around, and try to make her laugh.  We’d encourage her to focus and try to ignore them.  Some of the staff would make hilarious comments about pop stars she thought were cute, the residents would dance and jump around her.  With practice, she became very good at focusing on what she was doing despite all our shenanigans.

The first couple of years, she had a little crowd at regional and then state Olympics.  As the years passed, word spread.  Watching what she could do, despite her limitations, became an inspiration to hundreds of people - spectators and Olympians both.  Every year the crowd grew and her skill improved.  After a few years, she started having more people in her class so she could compete with others in the same race.  I like to think that it was because of her that these people began to compete despite their slow speed.

I told her often how proud I was of her, and I still am today.  Often, people in the crowd were so inspired, they would cry.  Whenever I start to feel down, I think of her and the others at the home, and how they didn’t let their limitations get them down.

She was, and still is, my ringer.


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