Think about the words you would describe about your child's experience with sports. Would "grateful" ever be one of them?
Over lunch recently, my friend Angela recalled watching her son play a baseball game. Andrew was having trouble that day gripping the bat with his right hand, the one he can't use much anymore since the treatment he endured for the brain aneurysm that cost him significant function on the right side of his body.
"It's heartbreaking," Angela said, her voice cracking a little. It wasn't long ago that Andrew, 11, was one of the most-skilled boys on his Little League team. He'd also made the competitive soccer team for his age group. Now Angela wonders if he might soon be done with team sports for good.
"I'm not sure he can keep up anymore," she said. "For now, we are grateful he gets to play."
Andrew was 8 in March 2013 when, after a bike ride with his parents -- and a baseball game scheduled later in the day -- he said he wasn't feeling well and took a nap. He woke up with a headache and pain in his neck and his parents rushed him to the emergency room. Andrew was suffering from a brain bleed from a congenital defect that causes blood vessels in the brain to knot and rupture. Within hours, he underwent brain surgery and a gamma knife procedure. His brain swelled, resulting in paralysis on his right side.
Two years later, Andrew still undergoes therapy and regular brain scans. The malformation that caused all of this has been significantly reduced. In his last scan, it didn't show up at all.
Andrew is trying to go back to the things he loved. He has a brace to support his right leg. He's learned to use his left hand to write and eat with adaptive utensils. Last spring, he served as the batboy for a local varsity high school team. He's a rabid baseball fan; last month, the Oakland A's, working with Rooms for Hope, redecorated his bedroom, with 12 players from the A's surprising him on the day of the reveal.
Andrew's doctors said he could play the game again because it's not classified as a contact sport. He worked hard in physical therapy for months, learned to throw and catch with the same hand, took batting practice as often as he could. And then he went to Little League tryouts.
"When one coach walked up to him and asked him why he was only using one hand and then made a note on his clipboard, my heart fell a little," Angela said. "I knew everyone would make a team so didn't worry so much about him being drafted. I just hoped that he would be drafted by an understanding coach."
He was. But Angela still felt like she needed to explain. Again.
"Andrew joining a team or starting a new activity means a call to the coach, or arriving early the first day to explain about your child," she said. "You want him to be just like all of the other kids, but you know that isn't exactly possible."
Parents of athletes with physical or intellectual disabilities have to ask questions others might take for granted. Will coaches know how to handle their child's needs? Will the young teammates be accepting? Will the other parents? Will there be adaptations available? Will there be opportunities?
My nephew, Brian, has autism. He is, in many ways, a typical 13-year-old boy. His arms, legs and feet are long and don't quite fit the rest of his now-teenage body. He loves video games. He thinks most of the grown-ups he knows are very annoying. He's social and funny and he likes what he likes and he's not afraid to tell you.
My sister, Linda, has signed him up for track and field, soccer, gymnastics and swimming through the years. He has played the past few seasons of Challenger baseball, the Little League division where teams are set up according to abilities.
Team sports, my sister says, have been a challenge.
"He has decent athletic ability, but he lacks patience," Linda said. "That's probably one of the most frustrating things as a parent, to see his natural ability for sports, but his lack of desire to play."
Track and field and swimming -- where Brian can focus on his individual performance -- have gone well. So has tae kwon do. He is engaged in his class and he's good at it. But ask him if he wants to go and he will tell you no. Of course, if you ask him if he wants to go to school, or Disneyland or pretty much anywhere else, the answer is usually no. But Linda says it's important for her to keep encouraging him to participate.
"I grew up with sports and I know how important they are in building character and friendships," Linda says. "For Brian, I am hoping the sports I choose for him will make him confident in his own abilities and that he can get better at something through hard work and effort."
That's a universal hope among sports parents. It is the thing we all have in common when we sign our kids up, take them to practice, sit on the sidelines and cheer. We know we are giving our kids an experience with value and meaning. But that value and meaning can be expanded to experiences about inclusion, acceptance and friendship.
Andrew is not self-conscious about his limitations. His baseball pants cover the brace on his leg. He's an outgoing kid who has no problem talking to people about what he can and what he can't do. Still, it tugs at his mother.
"I worry about him being injured," she says, "I worry about him being welcomed on a team as a full member. I worry about kids making fun of him. I worry about him doing well. All kids make errors, but I worry that his will be blamed on his disability."
My sister also worries. She watches my nephew's interactions with the other kids that he's participating with, looking at the other kids' faces to see if he's said something blunt or inappropriate. She worries about reactions from other parents who might not know he's autistic, or who might not understand.
She says they haven't really had any "best" experiences in sports. At least not yet. "But no worst experiences, either," Linda says, "just missed experiences, because I have been too afraid to put him out there with typical kids."
Hearing that from her was startling. Even though I spend a lot of time with my sister and have always marveled at the way that she parents my nephew, it reminded me that she has a perspective on parenting that I will never fully be able to understand because I haven't experienced it.
What I do understand is that for children of all abilities, sports can be an important rite of growing up. They provide lessons in competition, sportsmanship and self-esteem. They provide opportunities to build bonds and test limits. They expose kids to lessons in success and failure and give them the tools to deal with both.
These are lessons that every child should have access to, no questions asked. They are lessons for which everyone should be grateful.