I laughed every time Daffyd Thomas, played by Matt Lucas, appeared in episodes of Little Britain. The infamous phrase ‘I’m the only gay in the village’ was born and delivered in hysterical, frustrated tones, highlighting those fragments of prejudice that still exist in our society towards the gay community.
When our family moved to a village in search of a quieter life away from pollution and the rush of the cities, I found myself muttering ironically ‘Could it be that we are the only family with special needs kids in the village?’ I would walk in the streets with my daughter who has Down’s syndrome. At the mall, in the supermarket and at community events she was the only child I saw with special needs. My son, who has Autistic Spectrum Disorder, would walk alongside me and whilst he doesn’t ‘look’ different, he was the only child in his class and in his school, for all I knew, that had special needs. I didn’t feel amused, I felt isolated. I wasn’t able to laugh at our being the only family with special needs in the village. We felt different and it hurt.
Parents who have children with special needs often live their lives in isolation. It’s easier to stay home and not venture out when there is a risk that your children will have a melt-down in public, pull other children’s hair, or make unusual sounds and gestures which generate a host of glances, tuts and sometimes unsolicited parenting advice. We continued to allow these feelings of isolation to circumvent our social behaviour for the first years in our new home. Everything changed, however, on a cold November evening as we sat tucking into our usual favourite Sushi combination whilst watching Saturday night TV.
It just so happened that the show ‘Extreme Makeover Home Edition’ was showing. A programme that I always have to watch until the point at which the ever-so-grateful, needy family espies their new home and I start sobbing. Yet that night was different. Before the finale, at the point at which the crowds chant “Move that bus”, I realised that the family, who had a disabled child, had devoted their lives to helping other children with special needs. One of their initiatives involved the establishment of a baseball team for child with special needs.
“Baseball?” I asked myself. “How can a child run round the field when they can’t use their legs?” “How can a child catch when they have coordination difficulties?” and “How can a child with ADHD or an inability to follow an instruction learn the rules of the game?”
These questions swirled around in my head, filling me with curiosity yet as I watched, one by one they were answered. Children in wheelchairs were pushed around the field as they squealed in delight. Those who were more able-bodied but were challenged with coordination and concentration issues were supported and encouraged by someone standing with them, guiding them. I was transfixed. It was an incredible display of the ‘nothing’s going to stop us now’ attitude. It was inspiring and it gave me an idea.
I started to make some phone calls and had a couple of meetings with social workers, education managers at the local equivalent of a town council. It appeared that we were not the only family with special needs children. There were indeed more, at least enough to make up a baseball team.
Within a week of the show airing, I had a list of ten children from our village and surrounding areas, interested in joining. Most of the children were on the autistic spectrum, others faced social and concentration difficulties. To help facilitate understanding I wrote a bi-lingual picture book for parents to read with their children before starting called ‘When Words Fail’. It’s aim was to provide visual explanations to the children of the safety rules and equipment used in the game alongside tips on how to manage anger/frustration during practice and at the same time how support other players.
Our first meet was more overwhelming than I had anticipated. My very dark sunglasses were fixed to my face for the duration of the time in an attempt to hide my emotional state. I watched as the children participated in a team sport for the first time. I watched my son exercise alongside other children like him who find sport challenging and uncomfortable. I watched and listened to mothers who approached me with tears spilling down their cheeks as they declared that this was the first time they had witnessed their sons playing ball with their fathers.
By watching one programme we were inspired to help others and in doing so, it helped us tremendously. Next weekend our baseball team, the Tel Mond Angels, will be celebrating its first anniversary and, whilst each week we face different challenges, right now are grateful for one thing: we have made friends with people like us and whilst we all thought that ‘we were the only families with special needs kids in the village’, we are now cushioned by the support and understanding of others like us.
That feels so darn good!
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