My Role Model for Disability Employment Awareness Month

I hope you’ll read Peter Sagal’s piece in Chicago Magazine. But if you want a quick take on Jason Benetti, check out this animated video he did for the Cerebral Palsy Foundation.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness month, and it’s World Series month, too. What better time to write this homage to a talented professional with one of the most coveted jobs in sports?

First, here is some background.

Many of the things I take on are difficult to do without being able to see. Some are even scary. I used to keep that to myself, afraid that admitting it would give others license to put me in a disability “box” and assume I have limitations that just aren’t there.

Enter sports broadcaster Jason Benetti, a role model for me since 2018. That’s the year he started doing play-by-play alongside baseball analyst Steve Stone for NBC Sports Chicago. When it comes to living above and beyond the pigeonholes people try to squeeze disabled people into, he’s my guy.

This month, Peter Sagal, the host of NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me,” wrote a piece about Jason for Chicago Magazine. The title of the story, “The Storyteller of the White Sox, is followed by this fabulous tagline:

If you follow the White Sox, you likely know broadcaster Jason Benetti was born with cerebral palsy. But that’s just the start of his story.

Jason was born 10 weeks early and spent his first three months of life in neonatal intensive care. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a toddler, he grew up in a south suburb of Chicago. Both of his parents are White Sox fans, and for Jason, doing play-by-play for the Sox is a dream job.

That White Sox gig is by no means the only broadcasting he does. Not by a longshot. If you’re a sports fan, you might have heard him on ESPN’s alternate “StatCast” telecasts, or broadcasting other Major League Baseball games, or doing NFL games and NCAA basketball, too.

Jason is smart and funny and calls the plays so well that I, his number 1 blind fan, can picture them.

And in his Chicago Magazine article on Benetti, Peter Sagal paints a pretty good picture in words, too. Here’s how Sagal explains the way Benetti — and many other people with disabilities — have to adjust our own attitudes sometimes. From the article:

Jason knows people stare at him. They always have. Jason knows that his legs are oddly curved, that he walks with a full-body hitch in his step, and that his eyes point in two different directions, making people who don’t know him think he’s congenitally stupid. Jason is far too kind to put it this way, and too well mannered, but his remarkable career and potentially unlimited success isn’t a triumph over adversity. It’s a message to everybody who ever called him a gimp, to parents who told their children not to stare, to the flight attendant who asked him three times if he could handle the weighty duties of sitting in an exit row, and, while we’re at it, to the rival Jason beat out for a college radio sports director job who said, on a public forum, “Well, at least he will be a great magazine story.”

Ironies of ironies, Jason Benetti has inspired Peter Sagal to write a great magazine story here. Not one about “overcoming” a disability or working “despite” his disability, but one about his work in a highly-competitive field. When it comes to sports broadcasting, Benetti’s achievements speak for themselves.

My husband Mike, a big White Sox fan, read the Chicago Magazine story out loud to me so I wouldn’t have to hear it online in my talking computer’s robotic voice. When he got to a part where Sagal writes about Jason’s view of the tendency to make poster children out of people with disabilities, Mike said, “You know, I’ve always felt this way, too, but I never would have been able to articulate it like Jason Benetti does!” From the article:

I ask him about his role as a symbol of hope and triumph to the disabled and abled alike. He remains sensitive about it, especially the suspicion — fading but still lingering — that he got his chances to succeed only so he could make everybody else feel better. “You know those video clips where, say, the high school football team lets its disabled manager suit up and take the field and the other team lets him score a touchdown? I have an aversion to those. It’s like dropping food on a country in a famine. It’s nice and a good thing … but what’s going to happen after that?”

The part I myself related to the most came towards the end of the article, when friends from his days at Syracuse University chime in. One of them points out that back in college, Jason tripped an fell more than others did:

And we were walking one night home from a party, and he tripped and fell. And none of us cared — it was very normal. It’s not like he was being bullied by anyone. But that would ruin him for 48 hours. We would have to go home. … He was trying so hard to not have his disability be a factor. When it did, he … got angry.”

The angry part? I’m afraid that’s the part I could especially relate to. When coming back home after a walk with my Seeing Eye dog, I sometimes grope for a while before finding the door handle to get back inside. When crossing the streets here, we aren’t always exactly in the middle of the crosswalk. I know where the mailbox is, but I don’t always find the slot to put the letters in right away. I’m fine with making mistakes like that…unless someone sees me do them. Then I get flustered, worried how they’re judging me, frustrated. I read that last excerpt over again and see that my role model’s old college friend used past tense when mentioning Jason’s reaction: he got angry. That implies he doesn’t get that way anymore. Time for me to make that change, too. As this 2021 baseball season comes to a close, Jason and I have enough to feel frustrated and vulnerable and angry about: the Chicago White Sox didn’t make it past the first round of the playoffs!


 

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