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!


The Wonder of Fiction

The year the youth novel Wonder was published, I lost my father and was still grieving the loss of my sister. At the time I worked full-time at the University of West Florida, and somehow I missed the wonderment of Wonder.

Here is the 2012 NY Times Book Review.

I am about through and savoring its completion. The narrative, characters, and the real life circumstances of each middle-schooler, especially August, are true to life. The story has the effect of healing my own wounds from that period of youth that is so very difficult. It is the time when we truly differentiate from our childhood identities, our birth family, and move into the harsh realities of life.

R.J. Palacio, the author, put this book “out there” and it has since been translated into many languages, and used in classrooms, and other educational venues. Palacio created one book with a narrative for our culture, and cultures worldwide  about being “different”.

Auggie Pullman’s disfiguring genetic disorder causes conflicting feelings. Palacio provides personal narratives of Auggie’s sister and his classmates to sensitively show us how we deal with difference depending on our family, experiences, and personalities. Reactions to Auggie when he enters middle school range from fear to revulsion. When we learn more about each character, readers explore similar feelings in themselves.

Palacio takes adult readers on a poignant journey to our preadolescent selves when we asked, Who am I? We present ourselves to the world with our face and expression. We experience Auggie and his peers grow and change as they deal with Auggie’s condition and his bright, true persona which they discover over time.

Auggie’s facial deformities are extreme. Yet, he is a pretty normal tween and a cool guy once you get to know him. His experiences are tenderly created by a talented writer who was raising middle schoolers at home. She had once encountered a small girl with a similar genetic disorder at an ice cream shop. That encounter led to the creation of Auggie Pullman and her first ever novel.

At a time in world history when fear of the other is strong, this book provides a way to understand how we react to difference but how our differences help us grow and make the world a more wonderful place.

Maybe it’s time for a National REREAD of Wonder.

Read about Treacher Collins Syndrome

See the movie after you read the book.

Book Sales and Readings in Tucson

Tomorrow I will be a Bookman’s on Wilmot and Speedway from Noon to 2 pm for their Authors’ Fair. Hope you can drop by and chat and take a look at Threshold.

If you have a church group or book club that might wish to read a story about Tucson, with familiar settings and characters, give me a call at: 520-400-4117 or email me at

Threshold makes an enormous contribution to contemporary literature by teaching readers—in engaging and utterly consumable terms—about the physics of “the planet’s human induced fever.” Susan Feathers stages the need to know as part of the narrative dynamic. Key characters —academics, school teachers, museum biologists—understand only too well the processes by which the earth is growing hotter, while others don’t. The latter are in some cases too young or inexperienced to know; in other cases they’re complacent or too far in denial to face them. Those who know teach those who don’t. Through lively dialogues concerning, for example, how sunlight gets converted to electricity; or how oceans absorb solar energy; or how neighborhoods can set up electrical generating systems, we learn along with the characters. We’re invited to go through the same processes of recognition and assimilation that the various students in the story experience. READ A REVIEW     ~ Mary Lawlor, Muhlenberg College


Supporting Youth in Climate Change

My novel, Threshold, was written over a ten-year period due to a period of care-giving for my father. I decided to revise the original story from one in the distant future to a more immediate story. Climate science improved over that period, and I realized that what we do now was the focus I needed.

In the new draft, two teenagers emerged that were not in the earlier draft. I believe my concerns for young people and years of teaching middle school and high school students in the Southwest resulted in three characters I love: Daniel  – Junior Docent at the Desert Museum; Luna – emerging youth leader of the Tohono O’odham Nation, and Enrique – a troubled youth with a brave heart.

The story lines follow my conviction that we all play a part in the development of young people in our lives. We may even play a key role by just doing simple things like showing up with a platter of burritos (Mrs Carillo, Enrique’s neighbor), or offering a  kind word at a particularly potent time (Harold Liebowitz with Daniel). Often, it is helping your child by letting them struggle (Luna’s mother). Youth need encouragement in ways that fit them.

They also need adults to clear the path by breaking down social and economic barriers that keep real talents from blooming or dying on the vine from poverty and hopelessness (Congressman Ramirez with his community). And some youths who have lost a parent or suffered an equally dramatic blow, just need us to be around dependably until they can get back on their feet (Ed and Carla for Daniel).

With the uncertainty of climate change, what can each of us do to empower and support the kids in our lives? What skills do they need, what can we change or strengthen while we are here that will enable them as they meet their future?

If it means changing a way of life, using different forms of transportation, giving up some of our sacred cows, will we be willing to do so for them, and all the children who follow? Read Threshold to learn what the adults in Daniel, Luna, and Enrique’s lives do to help them make a bright future.

Youth who are empowered and making change:

Changemakers High School

Our Children’s Trust