At the first wheelchair tennis tournament I went to years ago, I recall having a conversation with four or five other wheelchair users and one standing nondisabled volunteer.
The nondisabled standing person eventually sat down to join us. She told me later that she felt "left out" and was "missing what was said".
Over the course of the weekend, I began to notice how many of the nondisabled volunteers began to sit down in our empty wheelchairs (we brought two- a sports wheelchair and an everyday wheelchair) when they hung out with us. By Sunday, many of the volunteers were sacked out in someone's wheelchair part of the time and sometimes rolled around to retrieve items.
Other volunteers would sometimes tease them, saying "You can walk!" But, amidst the good-natured teasing, there was a real shift over the course of a few days about who was sitting where and how they were doing things. This carried over to moments when wheelchair athletes waited on volunteers who were too tired to go get something to eat.
"I'm sore," they would say.
"All that standing and walking," we'd reply, winking at each other. "Just not a good way to get around. Not very efficient."
Of course at the end of the weekend, the volunteers did stand up and walk to their cars. We rolled onto vans or loaded wheelchairs and transferred into our cars. I suppose, to the naked eye, it appeared that nothing had changed.
But I know better. Out of those experiences grew friendships and relationships - even marriages- that otherwise would never have been. People met whose paths wouldn't have crossed and the intersections between sometimes very different worlds became grayer and more permeable.
Volunteers told us about invisible disabilities they had. Over the years we watched as some went through family or health crises and began to wonder who was there to help who.
There was no clear answer to that question. It seems to me now, looking back on those experiences, that I learned that pretty quickly. The dyslexic teenager who was a ball kid for four years came to me and said helping out changed his life. "Whenever you miss a ball, you always say "Need more duct tape," he told me "And after I saw a quadriplegic play tennis, I figured I can get to college the same way. I just adapt."
We both smiled. Every now and then I get an email with just the words 'Duct Tape' from him.
So if anyone out there is hesitating about trying adaptive sports because you might need "help" - think again. Some volunteer just might need you to show up.