My son, Knute, is one of those kids that people dream about having. He’s 6′ 1” now and casts a long shadow, but I remember when he was pulling himself to an upright position in his playpen. I also remember that shortly after that he pulled himself over the rail and started crawling around the house. He didn’t understand the whole ‘barrier’ concept. And he never will.
When he was about three he was diagnosed with a hearing impairment. It was mild at first but in the next few years it got worse until finally he was completely deaf. He had a lot of speech therapy and he learned to read lips. He was really smart and he could figure things out in unusual ways. So he stayed in regular school, even though a lot of people thought that maybe he should go to a school for deaf kids. He made lots of friends in school and did well. He loved sports and was good at pretty much everything. He never got angry, except for one time in fifth grade when his mother was called in to see the principal. She was told by the stern administrator that Knute had jumped on one of the kids and punched him in the face. The principal said that he wasn’t going to punish him, though. His mom asked why not? "Because the other kid was hitting him and taunting him and deserved to get hit back," he said. That may be one of the few times that he ever got angry. Even when he played sports, where he was very competitive, he was never overly aggressive.
Knute loved to follow sports, especially the Saints. When he was about seven years old we were eating at a pizza restaurant and talking about great moments in Saints history. I told him that my dad took me to every Saints home game and I had been at the game where Tom Dempsey kicked the record 63 yard field goal. He asked me a lot of questions about the field goal, and, as my mind drifted to the past, my eyes wandered over to the large hearing aids behind his ears. I realized at that moment that Knute and Tom Dempsey had something in common: they were both handicapped. Dempsey had been born with a club foot and wore a special shoe on his kicking foot.
I told my son that Dempsey’s feat had been even more special because "he was handicapped." Knute looked up at me with his trademark look of focused curiosity and asked "what’s a handicap?"
I didn’t really know how to answer that question, and as I thought about what I could say I kept staring at his hearing aids. Finally, I said: "Well a handicap is something that makes it harder for you to do something that’s easier for other people to do." I added, "if you can’t see that’s called blindness and that’s one kind of handicap." He looked at me knowing I had more to say so I continued: "And if you can’t hear that’s called deafness and that’s another kind of handicap."
His eyes brightened and it seemed like something registered with him. "My friend Shelby thinks I’m deaf," he said. "Oh really," I said with a rising tone in my voice. "Yeah," he said matter-of-factly, "but that’s just because I say ‘what’ a lot."
I realized at that moment that my son had no idea what a handicap was. And it turns out he never would. How foolish of me to try to explain it to him.