Playborhoods are Great for Special Needs Kids

In a Playborhood in Burlington, Vermont, Ben, an 11-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, can’t walk or talk, and his sight and hearing are somewhat impaired. In spite of these disabilities, he umpires wiffle ball games with the aid of three switches in his wheelchair arm that he can hit with a finger to play the words “strike,” “ball,” and out.”

Certainly, the neighborhood kids care for Ben, but they’re not above arguing with him. His dad, Michael, told me today about how one boy argued with Ben over a called strike just a few days ago. Perhaps Ben should get a new switch to play the word, “ejected!” ; )

Wheelchair-bound Ben also rides a special bike, with the help of one of his siblings or parents. The girl doing the driving in the photo here is his 8-year-old sister, Madeline. So, he’s able to ride around town with his family when they go on bike outings, rather than ride behind isolated in a van.

This situation with Ben in Burlington rings true for me. In my childhood neighborhood, when my friends and I played pickup sports games, we almost always needed more players, so we often invited Bobby, a mentally handicapped boy, and David, a deaf boy, to play with us. We created special rules for them to make sure they enjoyed playing with us. For example, Bobby wouldn’t want to play softball with us again if he never got a hit, so he got as many strikes as he wanted and anything he hit was fair – i.e. he had no foul balls.

Ben participates in a game called "500" in the street with neighborhood kids.

So, what is it about Playborhoods that make them egalitarian havens? Fundamentally, I think that, the closer activity is to homes, the more opportunity there is to put all residents on an equal footing, so to speak. Any location that requires driving to get there puts drivers in a position of power vis-a-vis passengers. They decide where to go and when.

Obviously all children are prohibited from driving, so being driven disempowers all children, but physically handicapped and mentally handicapped children have additional reasons to prefer staying close to home. They often have more difficulty adapting to new places for a variety of reasons. Physically, they may have problems navigating new obstacles like steps and tight spaces. Mentally and emotionally, they may feel less secure if they are surrounded by strangers.

So, I strongly believe that physically and mentally disabled kids – a.k.a. “special needs kids” – can thrive in a Playborhood.

In addition, though, I believe that the other, non-special needs kids, can benefit greatly from playing with special-needs kids in a Playborhood. I know that my friends and I in my old neighborhood thought very deeply about our goals in playing pickup sports games when we played with Bobby and David. We had to balance our desire to have our own fun and our desire that they have fun, too. Thus, every time we invited them to play with us, and every time we made a special rule for them and applied it, we grappled with the tradeoff between our own self-interest and egalitarianism.

Similarly, Ben’s siblings and neighbors probably grapple with this tradeoff every day. Would someone with perfect eyesight, the ability to walk, and the ability to talk make a better umpire? Certainly, but is it really important to have the “best” umpire possible?

Indeed, Ben’s siblings and neighborhood friends believe that Ben’s umpiring provides an interesting new dimension to wiffle ball games that a boring, perfect umpire wouldn’t. I envy them. I wish my kids had a kid like Ben around to play with.

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