Does it help disabled people to let them win?

Image source, Laurence Clark
Image caption,
Laurence Clark with his family

A video has gone viral of schoolchildren slowing down to let a disabled classmate win a race. Laurence Clark, a comedian with cerebral palsy, is not sure he wouldn't rather lose.

You may well have seen this clip - a sports day race begins, but everyone runs slowly to let their 10-year-old classmate with cerebral palsy win. He had been terrified of entering the event, because he'd come last every other year. As a father with cerebral palsy, I'm in two minds as to what to make of it.

Media caption,
Daniel Boyers sprints to victory - with a little help from his friends

I'm very familiar with the concept of letting your child think they've won even if they haven't. For example, last week I took my two sons Jamie, five and Tom, 11, to play mini-golf. After each and every hole, Jamie would look up at me expectantly and ask whether he'd won that round. And each and every time, regardless of whether he'd done well or not, I would tell him that he had, causing him to hiss "Yessss!" and punch the air in victory.

I do this partly to teach Tom to show generosity towards his younger brother, but more importantly, I don't want to be the father that all the other parents stare at with mild disapproval because his screaming five-year-old is having a total meltdown in the middle of a mini-golf course.

Image source, Laurence Clark
Image caption,
Laurence's son Jamie learning valuable life lessons on the mini-golf course

However, as someone with cerebral palsy, I'm probably less comfortable with the video than most. Of course, it's much better that this boy's schoolmates are going out of their way to include him, rather than bully him, which may have been the more likely outcome when I went to school. But I cannot help but cringe when I think back to my own school days, and times when I may have been given an easier ride just because I'm disabled.

The incident which sticks out most in my mind occurred when I was forced to do a training course to develop my social skills, which it was generally assumed we lacked by virtue of being disabled boarders at a special school. Now if you really want to improve the social skills of a surly teenager, pretty much the worst thing you can do is stick them on a course about it. This is because, speaking from experience, it'll really annoy them and consequently make them even less inclined to act sociably.

The first session turned out to be how to ask someone out on a date. Again, sex and relationships was something the Powers That Be assumed we'd have no clue about. Take it from me - this subject has no place in any workshop environment, especially one for a group of 16-year-olds. I remember looking across the room to see the guy opposite take his forefinger and wiggle it round and round his armpit before giving it a surreptitious sniff. You had to hand it to him - as pulling techniques went, it was pretty radical.

The course was run by a Canadian occupational therapist called Vicki, who started every sentence with "Hey" and had the kind of boundless positive energy that makes me want to gnaw my own leg off. And no prizes for guessing which lucky young buck she picked to practise chat-up lines with her.

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Laurence Clark was a guest on the latest Ouch podcast - listen to it here

So feeling awkward and incredibly self-conscious, I fell back on the kind of cheesy lines that no-one would ever dream of using in a million years:

"What's a nice girl like you doing in a special school like this?" I said.

The fact I was spooning on oodles of irony seemed lost on her. But just when I thought things couldn't get more cringeworthy, she responded by pretending to come on to me.

Vicki sensed I was struggling with the task in hand and so went easy on me. She let me think I had shown the social skills needed to get a date. She let me win just because of my cerebral palsy, in order to boost my confidence.

But funnily enough, being forced to seduce someone twice my age in front of my schoolmates had the opposite effect. It was five more years before I started dating for real. Although this could be down to studying computer science.

Image source, Laurence Clark

Undoubtedly, regardless of ability, every young child should have the experience of being a winner, whether it's a round of mini-golf or a school sports day. In fact, as I sit here writing this blog I await the delivery of the game Twister which no doubt my kids will thrash me at later on this evening. I guess this is one of the perks of having a dad with cerebral palsy.

But in my hard-won experience, as disabled children grow up, there will come a point where letting them think they've won might do them more harm than good.

Laurence Clark's show, Independence, is at Assembly George Square, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe, from 3 to 28 August