As the parent of a child with disabilities, I am used to asking places for accommodations for my older son, Max. I usually check ahead of time, because I don’t take it for granted.
If we’re headed to a new restaurant, I will call and request a table in the back in a corner, where Max tends to feel most comfortable. If we’re going to a zoo or amusement park we haven’t been to before, I will call and find out what sort of transportation options they offer since Max gets tired when he walks for long periods of time. When Max wanted to take tap dance lessons at a local dance studio, I contacted the owner and we worked out arrangements; I would have never presumed to just show up at the front desk and try to enroll him. Things don’t work that way. There are reassurances to be made, details to figure out, minds and attitudes to change.
Often, I can get accommodations. Sometimes, I am told flat-out no. I will never forget the sadness and frustration I felt when a babysitting service at a hotel refused to watch Max because, although he was potty-trained, he required some assistance in the bathroom. Like many children with special needs, at times my son may need an extra hand — but he deserves to enjoy the same experiences his peers do.
This weekend, I did something shocking: I didn’t call ahead to pave the way for Max. And I was happily surprised by what happened.
Our family was attending Kids Day at the U.S. Open, invited by Emirates Airline. There would be a tennis clinic where young guests could rally with the pros. My daughter, Sabrina, likes tennis. Max has never played; holding a racquet and hitting a ball when you have spastic cerebral palsy that affects your arms and legs is no easy feat.
“Max, do you want to try tennis?” I asked.
“Yes!” he said.
I could have gotten in touch with someone to see if and how a tennis pro could assist Max. Only it had been a hectic week, and I was smack out of steam. It takes a lot out of a parent to always be pushing and paving the way for your child with special needs. I figured that, for once, we would wing it.
When we got to the tennis clinic, Sabrina started whining that she didn’t want to do it. Max, however, bounded up to the entrance to the court and stood there, expectantly.
“He’d like to play — he just needs some assistance hitting balls,” I explained to the staffer there.
“Of course!” she said, as if she’d been expecting us. She asked us to wait a bit, then walked away. Two minutes later she returned with Devin, a tennis pro who shook Max’s hand. And it was that simple. Devin led Max onto the court close to the net, stood beside him, and held his hand over Max’s on the racquet. Then together, they hit balls another pro tossed at them.
Max had a gigantic grin on his face. He insisted they keep going and going and going. Oh, and after the pro let go of Max’s hand because Max was becoming a total court hog, Max held onto the racquet and whacked a ball by himself as Devin looked on in admiration.
I had tears in my eyes. I cried because after Max was born and doctors told us Bad Things, I could have never imagined this day would come.
The boy doctors said might never walk was owning a tennis court — on the very grounds of the U.S. Open, no less. The boy we were told might have vision issues was swinging at balls, his eyes shining brightly. The boy we were told might never talk kept saying “More!” oh-so-clearly each time the pro tried to finish the session. The boy who possibly wasn’t going to survive was enthusiastically playing a sport. He could not have been any more full of life standing there beneath the bright sun, this beautiful boy of mine.
I also cried because I was grateful for the welcoming attitude. I didn’t have to launch into a long explanation about Max’s needs, or even plead as I’ve occasionally had to resort to. The truth is, including children with special needs in activities shouldn’t be such a big deal; often, all it takes is an open mind.
Without ever scoring a point, Max had a major win on the courts that day.