A Story of Inspiration: How Vernon Changed My Perception of Disability
How Vernon Changed My Perception of Disability
It was the summer after my freshman year of high school and I had decided that I wanted to volunteer for the Special Olympic Games in town. On the list was a participant named Vernon who I randomly selected to mentor and coach that weekend. I had no idea what to expect and didn’t have any experience working with children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
When I arrived at the event, I came with the intention and desire to help uplift this young man’s spirits. I went over to the big tent in the middle of the field, met the director of the Special Olympic Games then met Vernon, a 24-year-old young man living with Down syndrome.
I shared with Vernon that I was on the track and field team at school and enjoyed the variety of events. I noticed that Vernon looked down most of the time and didn’t have much to say. At that point, I didn’t know if he was disinterested in the conversation, wasn’t able to communicate with me, or didn’t understand what I was saying. It didn’t matter because I was there to inspire him. Yet, little did I know that the roles would soon become reversed and Vernon would make an impression on me that would last a lifetime.
We proceeded to jog together and then something remarkable happened. Without even knowing it, I was the one who was becoming inspired! I would cheer him on, yelling “Go, Vernon!” as he sprinted past me down the track. I was pumping my fist, while watching him make his way around the track. Before I knew it, he would be back around for another lap, sprinting again past me with this “blaze of glory” look and a gigantic smile plastered all over his face. As he rounded the corner, he stopped to give me a high five. Vernon would repeat this for two or three more times, grunting along the way.
I had never seen anything like it! I couldn’t take my eyes off of Vernon. I was mesmerized by his zest for life and his positive attitude. He came around the turn again and as I was anticipating another high five, Vernon lunged toward me, ambushing me with this big bear hug. While feeling his labored breathing all over my face, I held him in my arms.
He looked up at me with these big puppy dog eyes and said, “Coach! Coach! You inspire me! What do you want me to do now?” At that moment, I thought, “I inspire you?” All of my misconceptions and limitations that I had thought about individuals with this condition suddenly vanished. Vernon was the one who inspired me and opened my eyes to what the possibilities that children with not only Down syndrome, but with any disability could do and become. This symbiotic relationship that we coalesced that weekend taught me the power of perception.
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