Dad improves inclusion of special needs children
This Father’s Day weekend is the perfect time to remember 96-year-old baseball great Carl Erskine, a dad who improved this country for special needs children. Erskine had already modeled a humble Christian life by the time he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s, become a close friend of Jackie Robinson, and promoted more racial inclusion in baseball. But there was another chapter of Carl’s life waiting to be written, a chapter chronicled by filmmaker Ted Green in his Christopher Award-winning documentary “The Best We’ve Got.”
On April 1, 1960, Carl’s wife Betty gave birth to their son Jimmy, who had Down syndrome. This was not a welcoming era for people with intellectual challenges. During a “Christopher Closeup” interview, Ted explained that the Industrial Revolution led to factories being built and competition becoming king. Anyone who couldn’t keep up was blamed for pulling society down. That attitude led to the eugenics movement, which said people with intellectual disabilities “need to be eliminated or not allowed to have children. Otherwise, they’ll be like bad cattle who infect the herd.” Eugenics became popular and gained support from the highest levels of government. In 1907, Carl’s home state of Indiana passed the country’s first compulsory sterilization law for people with intellectual disabilities, and other states soon followed suit.
The eugenics movement in the United States lost steam during World War II because it was similar to what the Nazis were doing. However, that’s when parents were told they should institutionalize their “defective” children (the term used at the time) so their family wouldn’t be held back from an affluent lifestyle. “That is what the doctors were saying to everybody,” explained Ted. “That is what they said to Carl and Betty.”
But the Erskines pushed back. When Betty’s doctor suggested sending Jimmy to an institution, she responded, “No way. I’ve been carrying this guy for nine months, and he’s coming home with me.” Carl and Betty were not the first to make this choice. They became part of what was called “The Parents’ Movement,” in which moms and dads raised their own disabled children, highlighting that the best treatment for them is love and respect.
The Erskines, however, took it a step further by taking Jimmy everywhere they went and building a community with other families of children with disabilities. Both Special Olympics of Indiana and The Arc of Indiana cite Carl and Betty as being at the epicenter of improving inclusion of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
When Jimmy was born, doctors predicted he would only live to age 35. Well, Jimmy turned 63 a few weeks ago. He worked at Applebee’s for 20 years, competed in Special Olympics for 50 years, and has even moved out of his parent’s home to live by himself (with some outside assistance). He is living a rich and full life, thanks to his parents.
Regarding the totality of Carl’s life, Ted believes he is worthy of the term “hero.” And he believes Carl’s is the best kind of heroism because it is attainable by anyone. “You don’t need to be able to dunk a basketball or memorize Beethoven’s fifth,” Ted concluded. “We all have it in us to put others first and to look out for others ahead of ourselves.” To view “The Best We’ve Got: The Carl Erskine Story,” you can visit the film’s website at CarlErskineFilm.com or check your local PBS station.
By Tony Rossi, Director of Communications, The Christophers