Able-Bodied or Dis-abled?

Marty Ball

The Paralympics opened today. It reminded me of a time long ago when I met Marty Ball, one of America’s first paralympic stars. I was working at Helen Hayes Hospital, and helped the staff start the 10K road race, The Helen Hayes Classic Race, to which Helen came to open the first official competition. Marty was a nationally recognized wheelchair champion athlete and agreed to open the race and help recruit wheelchair athletes for the inaugural race.

Though I had a degree in Special Education, I was amazed when Marty and his beautiful girl friend, also a wheelchair racer, arrived at the hospital, flung open the doors to his van, and preceded to unload his wheelchair. He plopped into it, and rolled over to a group of us so called “able-bodied” people and shook hands, introducing his partner. I distinctly remember Marty’s athletic body and robust presence, and thinking: he is far more able-bodied than the rest of us.

At that time, Marty Ball was using his notoriety as an athlete to champion races in which both able-bodied and people with disabilities raced together. And, in 1983, he was the first wheelchair athlete to complete the NY Marathon. Since then, the paralympics as grown to international competitive fame.

I was delighted today on writing this column to learn that Marty has continued to make a positive difference in the lives of so-call disabled athletes lives by innovating wheelchair technology, He has worked with designers  of wheelchairs for athletes, and everyone in need of individualized mobile technology to get around and lives a full life. Here is Marty in 2013 speaking about the development of the wheelchair for athletes:

Marty contracted polio as a young boy before the Salk vaccine was invented. Helen Hayes Hospital was originally established to treat people recovering from polio. Today, Helen Hayes Hospital is one of the nation’s top rehabilitation centers for people with injuries or disabling conditions to maximize their health and live to the fullest. It was such an honor to work there in the Bone Research Center where at that time some of world’s best surgeons were improving the gait of children with cerebral palsy and other similar musculoskeletal disorders.

I look at Marty today, review his life’s path, and once again, I am reminded that the adjectives we may use to describe each other mean nothing. It is how we take our lives, our ship, out onto the ocean of human experience and sail away to our destinies. Let’s all enjoy the Paralympics!

Postnote: One of my fondest memories from the inaugural Helen Hayes Classic Road Race was the image of my son, Tommy, at age 10, crossing the finish line! You could already see the making of a great athlete in him. It was a rainy day, my husband Tom held an umbrella over Marty, and all the runners and wheelers started together and ran the race together. It was a wet day, we all looked like drowned cats, but the spirit soared, and today the race is still going!


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