Monday, April 25, 2016

High School Gym Class With a Side of Ableism

When I was in school, there wasn't a class I liked less than gym.  It seemed that the deck was always stacked against me.  Once high school started, though, I found a couple of areas where I excelled, and was able to keep up at or above the level of the other kids:  the static arm hang as a freshman, and weight training as a sophomore.

[Image is: Me, sitting on my couch at home, beside my crutches.]

Another unexpected area where I excelled was the rock-climbing unit.  Students were harnessed and belayed for from below, as we navigated up a climbing wall in the school gym.  We could only go up two at a time, so the unit was a lot of waiting.  When it was finally my turn, I began making my way up the wall.

Cerebral Palsy means that anything that anything physical involves a good deal of both pre planning and motor planning.  Having never climbed a wall before, I had no previous experience to serve as a map for just how to make my way up.  Luckily, I was being belayed for by a good friend.  She was petite, smart and studious.  We faced the woes of Chemistry class together and she made it bearable for me, making the mathematical side of things a bit more clear with her patience and thoroughness.

I remember being slightly concerned that day that my tiny friend might not be able to manage belaying me (I was small - but both muscular and spastic, which could complicate things - I wasn't sure.)  But she was a solid presence below me, and I felt safe with her in charge of making sure I didn't crash and burn spectacularly.

Near the bottom, things were okay.  I could find hand and footholds fairly easily.  But as I progressed higher, they became more spread out, and more difficult to find.  More than once, I found myself stranded in one place, because I had no idea where to grab or step next.  I suspect my place blindness had a bit to do with this, because a usual (general) command like "reach up, or "step over" was not clear enough for me.  But my friend, it turned out, was more than book-smart.

"There's a spot right above your right hand," she'd say.  "Step with your left foot first, there's a foothold right there.  Now follow with your right foot.  Now you should be able to reach that spot with your right hand."

Somehow, an able-bodied student, a year below me, recognized my need for specific instructions with regard to motor planning, and patiently guided me.  It was a great feeling to be on par with the rest of the students in this regard.

Like them, I made it all the way to the top.

The scariest part for me, was letting go and rappelling down, but I did it.  I was so proud, and so was my friend.


The next time we rock climbed, my friend, for some reason, wasn't able to belay for me.  (Perhaps, because I was not able to belay for anyone,  My balance issues would not allow it.)  Anyway, on this day, my adaptive gym teacher belayed for me.

I was so excited to show her just what I'd accomplished last time.  I was strapped into the harness, as I was the previous time.  I said, "On belay,"

She said, "Belay on."

But my adaptive gym teacher did more than belay for me.  The moment I got stuck, unsure of where to next place my hands or feet, she used her position wrangling my harness to literally pull me to the next grip on the wall.

It was so frustrating.  So humiliating.  I didn't know if she just assumed I couldn't do it, or if there was a time crunch or what.  In any case, that was how my entire second climb went.  When I rappelled down to the gym floor and she congratulated me for "reaching the top" I couldn't look at her.

I remember finding my friend at the end of class and telling her what happened.  She looked confused and apologetic.  She didn't seem to grasp the depth of my frustration, after all, who wouldn't want a little help up the wall, right?

Well, me.

I didn't want help.

Not that kind of help.

Because I'd already proven that I could do it.  And because my 15-year-old friend treated me with more respect, so why couldn't I expect the same courtesy from a full grown adult who had been trained to do this job?


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  1. Such an important point!! I love when people are sufficiently helpful AND have faith in our abilities - and sometimes it's hard to find people who have that balance.

    Your friend sounds AWESOME! If you guys are still in touch, you should show her this post!

    1. We aren't in touch. I wish we were. I've tried to look her up a few times and have not been able to find her :( Glad this post strikes you as important. I feel like stories like these do not get told often...