April 2012 – In 1962, Dick and Judy Hoyt celebrated the birth of their first child. Life for the Holland, Massachusetts, family would be far different than they had ever imagined – or hoped.
Diagnosed as a spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy, baby Rick Hoyt had little hope. Doctors said there was no chance for him to live a normal life.
Dick Hoyt remembers it well: “They said, ‘Forget Rick, put him in an institution, he’s never going to be anything but a vegetable for the rest of his life.’ On the way home, we cried, but then we talked and we said, ‘No we’re not going to put Rick away. We are going to bring him up like any other child.’ And that is what we have done.”
When Rick was 15, his father, recognizing Rick’s competitive spirit, lent Rick his arms and legs so that he could run in his first race – and so began Team Hoyt. Thirty-three years and 1,072 events later, Rick, unable to speak or move his arms and legs, has shown the world that human worth is not packaged in appearance and abilities. Team Hoyt has taught the world to view people with physical disabilities or special needs in the way Rick once described himself: “First and foremost, I am a person with a brain and intelligence.”
Recognizing the unique personhood of those with special needs begins in the home, as parents ensure that their children are accepted and incorporated into family life. Dick Hoyt said, “You just bring them up like any other child. The way we brought Rick up was hardly any different than the way we brought up the other boys except that we had to do more things for Rick.We accepted Rick for the way that he was, with the things that he could or couldn’t do. But he was always included; that’s the big thing. And we could look in his eyes and could tell that he understood everything.”
However, even with that revealing look into the eyes of a child with special needs, raising that child is anything but easy. The most patient and well-meaning parents experience moments of frustration, confusion and defeat when faced with difficulties in communication, delayed potty-training, disruptive behavior in public and other issues that limit the “best” life they had hoped to have for themselves and their children.
Learn to grieve
Such parents are presented with a rare privilege and a tremendous challenge. Still, they must be prepared to drastically realign not only a lifestyle, but also their attitudes and expectations.
Denise Coy, a Boise, Idaho, mother of two children with special needs, said, “You have to realign your priorities and find out what is really important in life.”
Parents must come to terms with the realization that making room in their lives for this child means more than placing a crib in the bedroom.
As Coy said, “You have to take time to mourn the loss of the life you thought you were going to have. And I think that is an ongoing process.”
Judy Blake of Houston, Texas, has two sons with autism and is author of the book Judy’s World. She agrees that grief is a natural part of making this adjustment. “There is shock,” she said. “And then you cry, and you cry, and you cry.”
Even after the shock subsides, fears remain. Most people have little experience with the disabled; thus, raising a handicapped child can be frighteningly uncertain. This is especially true as the varying forms and degrees of disability defy the wisdom of any parenting guidebook.
Blake explained, “With this you don’t know how a child is going to develop or how they are going to respond to different therapies. It is that fear of the unknown that is so frightening.”
Live day by day
Dick Hoyt said, “Doctors couldn’t tell us what to expect. We took it day by day and did everything that we thought we should, because Rick couldn’t communicate to us.”
Coy takes a similar approach as she waits patiently on the Lord to provide wisdom and fortitude daily. “Instead of trying to make life work out the way we want, we take it day by day with what the Lord has given us,” she said.
And yet, while a parent may be unable to plan for a child’s future, Team Hoyt challenges the world not to limit individuals with special needs based on their disabilities. Instead, a parent should take the extra time and effort to discover the child’s maybe not-so-obvious abilities, as Dick Hoyt did with Rick.
Hoyt pointed out that one must first realize the uniqueness of every person. “Every child that is physically challenged is different, just like any human being is different,” Hoyt said. “So we should be able to treat them just like anybody else. You may just have to do something different so they can enjoy their life like everybody else.”
Parents can find outside assistance in discovering and exercising their child’s full potential. According to Blake, this benefits both the parent and the child. “It is so important for parents and families to feel that they have help available – that they are not alone,” she said.
While it may be difficult to locate credible resources in one’s own area, Blake provided a few tips: “After you find out what the disorder is, contact the national organization and get as much information as you can, and then do an Internet search for local support groups in the closest city. Also, doctors, diagnosticians, therapists or specialists will usually have resources.”
After such resources have been located, Blake recommended having children in educational programs from an early age. “I believe that early intervention is best, with speech therapy, special schools, occupational therapy, social skills classes and things like that,” she said.
Others should be aware that they can learn much from special needs individuals. They reveal what lends true worth and joy to a human life – something that is too often obscured by the superficial values of a culture that relies on appearances, usefulness and material success to define value.
“Kids or grown-ups [with special needs] are some of the happiest people you’ve ever seen in your life,” Dick Hoyt said. “It’s just amazing! They’ve always got a smile on their face, even though they can’t do anything, but they’re trying their best to do everything to the fullest.”
For Blake, a big change of attitude comes when one realizes the fine line that separates one from those with special needs.
“If you’re one of those people that doesn’t have special needs, it’s only by the grace of God that you have your good health,” she said. “And that can change in a heartbeat. That helps you to put things in perspective.”
She emphasized the importance of looking beyond the disabilities in a person, to recognize the inherent value of every human life and to treat a person accordingly.
“Just because someone is different, that doesn’t mean they are less than anyone else,” she said. “We need to be more compassionate; we need to be more tolerant toward those who have special needs.
When you see someone who might have more difficulties, don’t put them down. Help them. Don’t think they can’t do something. Believe that they can. Instead of looking at them as people with special needs, look at them as people who are just special.”
Devoted – A Father’s Love for His Son, by Dick Hoyt and Don Yaeger (www.teamhoyt.com)
In Judy’s World, by Judy Blake (www.judysworld.info).
www.troubledwith.com, a Web site of Focus on the Family, contains a tab for Special Needs Children under Parenting Children
www.JoniandFriends.org contains information on resources, ministries and programs to serve people with disabilities