I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what happened yesterday.
I need to be honest with myself (and you) and admit that it was a big deal to me. I feel like I initially couched my thoughts in the “I’m an advocate for others, so this is why it’s a problem for us” angle and there’s truth in that, for sure. But in actuality, it pissed me off, personally. I went to the gym to try and workout my emotions and started tearing-up on the treadmill like four times. There was something there and it’s important to me that I examine why.
Let’s start here: I’m not offended by much when it comes to my disability. I joke about it a lot. I find what others would likely deem “inappropriate jokes” to be pretty dang funny most of the time. I’m proud of and confident in my abilities to do the things I want and need to do. I wrote a book about how being different is awesome and I travel the country doing assemblies at schools teaching kids to accept themselves and others just the way they are. I’ve become accustomed to staring and rude questions and outbursts from little kids and am able to let them roll off my back pretty easily, for the most part.
So…why was it so upsetting to me when Topps released Jim Abbott’s card with his name spelled incorrectly?
I think it’s about being seen as an equal.
I’ve always loved baseball and played when I was a kid. Every time we played a new team, my first at-bat was nerve-wracking. I didn’t want special treatment. I wanted to prove that I belonged. That I was as good as anybody else. I’d look at the confused faces of the kids in the field as I stepped to the plate and simultaneously think to myself, “Don’t screw this up” and “They have no idea what’s coming.” A fabulous mix of insecurity and confidence. I’d watch the outfielders get waved-in by their coaches and dig my back foot in even harder. I’d watch the pitcher’s face, which was usually either confusion or amusement, and waggle my bat. And almost without fail, I’d get a solid hit. You could see everybody’s eyebrows rise as they thought, “Oh dang, he can hit! Okay okay…” And then it was on.
Same thing happened on the basketball court. Make that first step-back jumper. And the football field. Fly down the right sideline to make a grab and scamper to the endzone. You get the point.
That’s a lot of pressure on a kid! And it sticks with you, I guess. That’s what I’m learning.
Most of the time, whether you think we should or not, people with disabilities feel excluded. Or at least not fully included. We feel marginalized. And when we are included, it oftentimes feels like the people doing so think they’re doing us a favor. And even then, most of the time we aren’t asked what would work best for us, so the ways people try to include us actually make us stick out even more or, in some cases, don’t really even work.
Which is why, I think, it hit me hard when the card came out with Jim’s name spelled incorrectly. In addition to just being plain ol’ disrespectful to Jim, it felt like, “Here ya go! We included you! We didn’t take the time to make sure it was right or anything, but… You’re included!” They still haven’t said anything about it and they haven’t corrected most instances of it on their website even 24 hours later, even though it’s clear they are aware of it because they changed one image. And maybe it’s not fair, but I can’t imagine them making the same mistake with Mike Trout or Derek Jeter or Cal Ripken Jr or Jackie Robinson or Babe Ruth or Willie Mays or Mookie Betts or or or… It is, in fact, literally the only name they’ve spelled incorrectly in the entire project.
I’ll take a second here to beg you to watch Crip Camp, an incredible documentary on Netflix (that should have won the Oscar, but whatever). It will likely make you uncomfortable if you don’t have a disability, but it’s incredibly important to see the very recent history of how disabled people have been treated (read: dismissed) in this country. The people in this film are literally my heroes and my life is what it is in large part because of the difficult work they did.
And listen, I get it. This is all nuanced. Hell, I’m 43, have had a physical disability since birth and I’m still figuring this all out myself! But my request is that, instead of throwing up your hands (however many you have), you’d be open to hearing other people’s perspectives and experiences. And that you’d resist the temptation to say that it’s just complaining or “playing the victim.” If you’ve never walked into a grocery store/a classroom/anyplace there are people and felt eyes all over you because of how you look, I understand this is a foreign concept to you. And I’m glad you don’t have to deal with it, but there are a ton of us who do.
Let me also clarify that I’m not calling for a boycott of Topps or Craola (the artist) or anything like that. At all. I’m not going to storm their facilities or anything. I do believe it was a mistake, but even honest mistakes can and often do have unintended consequences. This is one of those situations where I hope we’re all able to learn together and move forward. Like my friend Tom on Twitter said, “We’re all just people.” Let’s work on treating each other that way.