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Living with cerebral palsy in sports

  • Jason Benetti is a play-by-play baseball announcer in Washington
  • Benetti has a mild case of cerebral palsy
  • “The way I look is a small part of who I am,” Benetti says

Editor’s note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle — injury, illness or other hardship — they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn’t know they possessed. Jason Benetti once hid behind his radio microphone, so that people could not see he has a mild case of cerebral palsy. Now he’s a play-by-play announcer in front of the camera.

(CNN) — No place reminds me that I have a disability like an airport. Each time I’m there, I’m offered the transportation version of Southern hospitality: a handicapped cart ride.

Without fail, as my cerebral palsy and I hobble to a connection, a gentleman or lady motors up to me, beeping all the way. With a heartfelt smile, he or she asks some variation of “Would you like to get on?” This has happened no fewer than 40 times in my life.

I travel quite often, and these people have a remarkably good hit rate.

For each driver, it’s an opportunity to do some civic duty. Each person — even when I decline — feels good about asking. From my vantage point, it’s just another guy or gal who’s never met someone like me before.

I used to get mad. My anger bubbled over into a phrase, never uttered out loud, like “No, I don’t need a ride, but I do need you to leave!” Over the course of time, though, I’ve come to understand what these Good Samaritans are doing.

We need schemas — compartments by which we file information — to live. When we are in our cars and see a green sign, we automatically know that it’s a road sign. We can read the words on the sign without first taking the time to understand that we’re looking at a sign. “Road sign” pops into our brains by default. Without schemas, everything we see in the world would need to be analyzed; we would all be mentally drinking from a fire hose 24/7.

So the cart drivers file me under “disability.” They see me and think certain things about my skill set, my motor ability and my mind. That all processes together in a split second. The final computation from their brains is: “Help him.”

Remember, though, that road signs don’t register in our minds simply because they are green. They register as “road sign” in our brains because we’re on the highway, because they’re mounted on metal poles and because they’ve got distances written on them. If “green” was the only marker for “road sign,” we’d stare at our garden hoses and broccoli in very strange ways.

I thought I understood the delicate nature of schemas. Then, in the first week of August, I took part in the inaugural CHAT, or Communication Hope through Assistive Technology, camp at Syracuse University.

CHAT brought together five young people who communicate through assistive technology and their parents to meet new friends, play games and learn about each other. The five kids and their families are all at significantly different places on the disability spectrum.

While we all communicate differently, the CHAT campers and I share common ground in one important way: We break schemas.

When strangers meet my buddy Leo, they can learn that he is a phenomenal communicator — with his eyes, his smile and his iPad. When strangers meet my new friend Graham, they can learn that he speaks to them by staring intently at his thoughts on a screen. And when strangers meet me, they can learn that I communicate through my vocal cords successfully. And that I generally don’t need a lift.

That is, if they choose to learn. Remember, schemas exist so we can rapidly decide on objects in order to live in a rational, organized way. So others must carefully decide whether their perception of disability is worth the time to reorganize or shatter these schemas.

In my life, those who mean the most to me are the ones who have, knowingly or not, reformatted their brains when it comes to disability. My college roommates treated me like any perfectly mobile person and helped me work through the difficulties I faced in coping with my disability. My Syracuse Chiefs broadcast partners joke with me and challenge me as though I am in tip-top physical condition.

And Pete Gaines, the producer who championed my cause to be a TV announcer for the first time, took a leap that changed my life forever.

Those who have not as finely changed their perceptions of the world are not wrong or intolerant. To me they are simply an opportunity. In the early days of television, viewers could only judge TV personalities on the way they looked and the way they sounded. Now announcers can share ideas — about the world and themselves — on Twitter and Facebook.

The most famous scene in the movie “Network” involves TV anchor Howard Beale going from a stately newscast into a fit of rage, which ends with him screaming, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” In that era, the station had only a few choices of how to respond. Howard could apologize on air, Howard could do nothing or Howard could be fired.

Today, Howard could explain himself right away to millions.

Nowadays, if you tune into a game I’m doing, you may first see my lazy left eye, a byproduct of my cerebral palsy. But through the creation of the Internet, you can know immediately that I’m not intentionally looking away from you. I care about you and what you think of the game I’m covering. And you, though you may not know it, are changing your perception of the world by watching.

When I met my CHAT friend Leo, I first saw a young man in a wheelchair. Then I saw his infectious smile. Then I watched as he typed my name on his iPad. Then he did a newscast with me through his device. Leo’s wheelchair is a tiny part of his being.

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I have had more than one TV executive say this: “The first thing I do when I pop in the tape is look at the on-camera work.” That is totally understandable, as this is the way TV has always judged people. And with time constraints and the sheer volume of great announcers out there, this is a comfortable, practical schema to use. Looks matter on TV. But not only is my on-camera work less than 1% of a typical live sports event telecast, the way I look is a small part of who I am.

Judging us on how we look is like not watching the NBA because you don’t like jump balls. It’s like swearing off soda because you’d rather not drink lime extract.

In exchange for your willingness to fine-tune your “disability” file about us, I’ll work my tail off to be as informative and entertaining as possible. Leo will spend tireless hours learning to write on his iPad. And Graham will make sure that every day he hones his ability to see his screen and converse with you.

We’re more than a road sign. We’re not flat. We’re multifaceted.

If you take the time to understand us, we, like the cart drivers at the airport, will take you for a ride.



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