A little less than four months have passed since packing up and moving to Tallahassee. The trip from Baltimore to Florida was long, but has so far proven to be worth it. Since arriving on New Year’s Day, we’ve utilized several of the local parks the city manages. Every Saturday morning, I play in an informal baseball league at one of two public ball fields where I’ve met new friends and glorified my childhood dreams. My girlfriend and I have taken our dog, JD, to Tom Brown Park where she’s had an opportunity to run free for an hour and play with other dogs. Along with our roommate Jordan and his dog, we’ve gone on hikes through nature trails. I’ve looked into playing organized flag football, softball, and even kickball through a city run adult league. The city offers a “Teen-Center” for teenage development and youth sports leagues in soccer, baseball, and basketball, to name a few. The list of activities, community centers, and parks goes on and on and on.
However, as I “surfed” the talgov.org site, I found myself a bit aggravated. One of two things hit a nerve; I am either behind on my technological skills (and search skills) or Tallahassee doesn’t offer organized sport for those with a disability or those with mental or development disorders. So, naturally, I thought back to the liberal city I just moved away from. My experiences with Baltimore during the five years I lived in the city convinced me the local government just HAD to offer some sort of publicly funded and organized league for children with autism or a wheelchair basketball league. Again my search skills were either appalling or Baltimore doesn’t have anything to offer either. My curiosity brought me to the Vineland department of Recreation website. I grew up in Vineland and worked for the Recreation Department from age 15 to 21. My old supervisor has since retired, but I wondered if the new administration had created a league or two for those who are not considered the “physical norm.” As the trends predicted, they still offered only public sport to able-bodied participants.
My cousin Jenny, a sign-language interpreter for a public school in New Jersey, had her first child eight years ago. By a year old, the doctor’s were 90% sure he was autistic. By two years old, he was officially labeled as having autism. Today, John is far from a self-functioning child. He is learning how to verbally communicate his wants and needs (or perhaps his displeasures). “John, John, Super-John” is learning to read and write and Jenny has even taught him some basic sign language. He plays with toys that challenge him mentally and enjoys kicking a soccer ball.
John is an active child and deserves the same opportunities as all children his age. John has taken swimming lessons, plays soccer, baseball, and basketball, and is learning to play the piano. The swimming lessons occur one-on-one and are quite costly to find a person trained in not only the swimming technicalities but also in working with children with autism and to rent a facility. The soccer league he plays in was started by a father who has two sons with aspergers. He started the league when he was unable to find a local organization for his children to play in. Challenger Baseball, a national organization, hosts the baseball game, but John finds the sport “boring” as he is standing around too long.
Local or state government recreation departments are often funded through public tax dollars and should accommodate everyone equally. Through public funding, they are able to offer financial assistance for families with financial dependency, offer publicly managed ball fields, and help offset the cost of equipment, coaches, and officials. The three government funded recreation departments mentioned earlier offer the following blurbs on their websites:
“In the Division of Youth and Adult Sports, you will find a program suited to your needs. The Division promotes the whole individual, good sportsmanship and an environment that is both fun and competitive.” (baltimorecity.gov)
“The Recreation Department is resolved to enhance and cultivate recreational activities within the City of Vineland.” (vinelandcity.org)
“Recreational opportunities continue to be an important part of our Community. The goals of the Tallahassee Parks and Recreation Department are to provide worthwhile leisure programs for citizens of all ages and a well maintained parks system.” (talgov.com)
The government, in supporting ALL of the people who live in a common space, should offer some sort of league, support, or direction. I’ve always understood the government to make the best decisions that help the majority of the people; however, I feel like there is something more these public entities can offer. I’m not suggesting they spend all of their budgets, which have been slashed tremendously during the latest recession, however at the very least, they could offer links from their public recreation websites to private organizations such as Challenger Baseball or a local basketball league like the two links I’ve attached at the end.
Local governments could also help offset the costs for private lessons. I’ve been talking with Jenny on facebook recently and in her last message, after talking about all that John has been involved in, she said the following: “I had to set up reward system for him. I had to pay full price for that too. I need to make more money haha.” Obviously, working through a public school interpreter’s salary (and her husband John’s salary) they aren’t living in poverty, but the cost of raising a child with autism, and a second child, Reagan, is astronomical. Recent research has suggested the cost of raising a child with autism could exceed $3 million and those figures include private training or instruction which is often required for athletes with autism.
All in all, local governments need to reanalyze exactly what they’re offering and who they are accommodating with public funds. They have an opportunity to give back to those raising a child with not only autism, but any mental or physical disability which prevents nontraditional able-bodied athletes from physical activity and a social setting.