Eric Huayi Court’s positive attitude has helped him rise above many obstacles and challenges outside of his control. When asked to describe the “bumps in the road” he has encountered throughout his life, he answered, “whatever bumps come, it doesn’t matter because I am a 4×4 and can handle them.” Eric has used a wheelchair to get around since he was a child. He became paralyzed at a young age. His condition is likely the result of poliomyelitis, an infectious viral disease that targets the central nervous system. The exact cause of his paralysis is unknown because he was soon after abandoned and sent to live at a child welfare institute in his native China. Despite his condition, Eric is an athlete. In addition to playing wheelchair tennis, he swims and surfs in his home state of Hawaii.
Eric was chosen to be a recent recipient of the Auger & Auger Disabled Scholar Award for his academic and athletic achievements, as well as his passionate advocacy for better inclusivity in sports. After high school, he wants to study physiology in college to pursue a career as an adaptive PE teacher or a similar job in which he can help the disabled community become more active.
Watching From the Sidelines
Imaginative play is critical for childhood development and as Eric reports, “being deprived of play is traumatic to any child.” Eric spent his young years at a childhood welfare facility in China. Due to his aptitude for learning and intelligence, Eric was selected to attend public school, an opportunity extended to only three children out of the three hundred that called the institution home. At first, the school did not want to admit Eric due to his disability, but due to the persistent efforts of the orphanage director, Eric was granted a slot. A hard-working student, Eric did not waste his opportunity and excelled.
Despite his high achievements, Eric was excluded from one activity of the day: recess. As the only disabled student in his class, he was left alone to watch from the window as the other students played in the courtyard. In his own words, he describes the experience:
“As the last student lines up outside of the classroom, their footsteps slowly fade away as the teacher leads them downstairs to the courtyard below. When I am sure that everyone is gone, I painstakingly make my way to the window overlooking the courtyard, using desks as handholds to support myself as my legs drag beneath me. My breath makes fog on the window as I strain to see beyond the ledge that partially blocks the view to the courtyard. There they are! My class has just come out of the school’s double-door entrance with the teacher at the head. As all the students enter the courtyard, they scatter like a break at the beginning of a game of pool. Girls congregate with girls and boys with boys. Soon a basketball scrimmage, groups of children sitting around Pogs, and a pick-up game of soccer fill the air with the sounds of children talking and playing. In the girls’ groups, they take turns playing tag and sitting in small groups to chat. One of the only places where girls and boys gather together is at the Chinese jump rope. Multiple people run into the moving jump rope and then quickly jump out after they hop over the rope a few times, squealing in laughter or kidding their friends who missed a step. Laughing faces, though far away, are seen clearly by me. I wish I could be there too. After watching them for a while, I shuffle back to my desk, physically equally as slow and painstaking a journey as the one there, but mentally even more painful. Even if I wish to be out there, to them, it is not possible or even worthwhile. I am disabled.”
A Voice for Children Under Institutional Care
Eric explains that attending public school was a special opportunity for orphaned children in his province, instead of a human right extended to all children, regardless of circumstance. Though he was grateful for the chance to go to school and excelled in his studies, his academic accomplishments were besmirched by an expectation of gratitude for being selected to attend. He became an example of the state’s efforts to provide education to disadvantaged youth, a “poster-child” used for publicity in his province.
Early institutional experiences can have adverse effects on childhood development. Children who grow up under institutional care experience “structural neglect,” which is defined by limited resources, and socially and emotionally deficient caregiving interactions. Furthermore, children may be asked to pose for publicity pictures or draw thank you pictures when the community or some other charitable organization donates clothing, toys, or other resources. To be asked to fulfill the emotional needs of adults is a heavy burden that many children who grow up under institutional care experience on a regular basis.
As Eric explains, this early experience can dictate a child’s way of thinking for many years to come and it can be difficult to adjust to life outside of the orphanage. Eric asks that we extend compassion and patience to children adjusting to new lives and new circumstances and understand that their early experiences have a huge impact on their behavior and outlook.
Eric’s early experiences have influenced him to become an adaptive athlete. He hopes to bring disability awareness to the wider world, especially when it comes to inclusion in play and sports. Once Eric settled into his life in America, he started playing basketball, and tennis, and began swimming and surfing. He found he began to feel healthier, more self-confident, and less stressed. Now, his mission is to bring those feelings to others.
In the U.S., Eric entered the sporting world with the help of numerous nonprofits that provide disabled people access to sports. These organizations are wonderful, but as a society, we must be more aware of how to be inclusive in our daily lives. Eric says, “More life-changing moments could take place if the people we see around us every day could be always inclusive and aware. That would make such a big difference in the life of a person seeking inclusion. Going to an event where there are lots of volunteers and special chances to ‘experience’ sports are great, but having classmates who invite you to play with them on a regular basis would be an even more powerful way of providing support,” challenging us all to see the ways in which we can make a meaningful difference.
Eric plans to attend the University of Arizona where he will compete in wheelchair tennis. He wants to study physiology in order to work as a physical education teacher or in a related field. His goal is to interact with the disabled, yet active, community in Tuscon and Phoenix and help them experience the numerous physical, psychological, and social benefits of sports and play. As an athlete, scholar, and advocate, Eric is a role model and intends to use his gifts to make the world a better and more inclusive place for everyone.