Last month I happened to catch a story on Weekend Edition and heard NPR’s Rachel Martin talking with Lisa Fenn, the author of Carry On: A Story of Resilience, Redemption, and an Unlikely Family. The two athletes Lisa Fenn profiled in her book and in a documentary for ESPN’s Outside the Lines program were present at the interview, too: Dartanyon Crockett and Leroy Sutton.
Dartanyon Crockett is competing in the Paralympics in Rio this week. He is legally blind and was one of the best wrestlers on his high school team. Leroy Sutton lost both legs in a train accident when he was 11 years old. Leroy transferred to Dartanyon’s high school and took up wrestling, too.
Soon Dartanyon was carrying his new friend Leroy to practices and wrestling meets. Lincoln-West High School had no elevators, so they took high school classes together, always sitting side by side. “Dartanyon would get up to sharpen Leroy’s pencils,” an ESPN story reported. “Leroy ensured Dartanyon could read small print.”
I’ve never been in a wrestling match (unless you count the Three-Stooges-inspired arm wrestling matches my big sister Bev always won when we were kids!) but like Dartanyon and Leroy, I’ve benefitted from cross-disability help in my life as well. After losing my sight, I trained to volunteer for hospice. A lot of the work would involve counseling and matching resources to needs. I could do that.
The agency seemed thrilled to have my Seeing Eye dog Dora and me at the weekly sessions. They introduced us to visitors proudly, practically making us the poster children for the volunteer program. Soon after graduation, everyone in my training class had been assigned a patient — except me.
When I called the agency, they admitted their reluctance. “I don’t know, Beth,” the volunteer coordinator told me over the phone. “We’re just afraid the families might see you as needier than they are.”
I kept my name on the volunteer list, and a year later the agency finally gave in. Ernie, my first hospice patient, was an uncommunicative and eccentric old coot. None of his friends or family was willing to take care of him at home, so when his cancer got bad enough he was forced to check into a nursing home.
“We usually don’t send volunteers to nursing homes,” the volunteer coordinator told me. “But the home called us asking for someone. Apparently Ernie won’t talk to them about dying. Actually, he won’t talk to them about anything.”
Other volunteers had turned down this assignment. I took it and visited Ernie three times a week. At first, I did all the talking, but after a few weeks, he finally tired of listening and spoke up.
By the end of two months together, Ernie and I had hatched a plan to rent a wheelchair so I could push him onto one of the local riverboat casinos. I’d never been gambling, and he wanted to show me how.
Hardly a Paralympics game achievement, but ever since Ernie and I hatched that plan of ours, I’ve wondered why people with disabilities don’t pair up like this more often. Ernie’s health declined quickly, and the two of us never did get a chance to try out the slot machines together. During visits, however, he let me hold his hand. When he was transferred from the nursing home to a hospital, Dora and I were given family status at the ICU. We were allowed to see Ernie as often as we wanted. Mike came with me and Dora to Ernie’s wake.
Decades later, especially recently, I’ve experienced a peculiar sort of lift from providing and receiving help from someone with a disability that’s different from mine. My new boss at my Easterseals job uses a wheelchair, and at a recent conference she helped me find an empty seat in a crowded lecture room. I picked up a folder she dropped during the presentation. Actors who used wheelchairs guided Whitney and me to our spot on stage during our debut at Victory Gardens last month, and I helped them with physical tasks on stage that were difficult to do from a chair. It feels good to help — and be helped.
But back to the athletes. Both graduated from a high school in Cleveland where fewer than 40 percent go home with a diploma. Leroy Sutton went on to college from there, and Dartanyon Crockett moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Coaches there recognized his natural athletic abilities and invited him to learn the Paralympics sport of judo.
He won a Bronze Medal in judo in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London and is in Brazil now to compete in this year’s games in Rio.
NBC Olympics will combine to present more than 70 hours of coverage of the Rio Paralympic Games across NBC, NBCSN, and the NBC Sports app. That’s an increase of 64 hours from the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Coverage begins tonight, Wednesday, September 7, at 7 p.m. ET.
Play-by-play commentators, analysts and reporters are all former Paralympians, and they’ll have their work cut out for them trying to describe what they’re seeing when Dartagnon takes the floor — I don’t know a thing about judo. But trust me, I’ll be listening to every word.