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Casey Martin, the PGA Tour and Us


  So Easy to Ignore the Disabled

  Examining Our Own Attitudes

 Focusing on the Real Issue

Golfer Casey Martin says that all he wants is "to be known as a great golfer. Not as a guy in a cart or with a disability—just a great golfer." Unfortunately for him, though, most people know his name because of his lawsuit against the Professional Golf Association (PGA) Tour for the right to use a cart when playing.

The reason Martin needs to use a cart is that he was born with Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome. This rare circulatory disorder causes blood to pool in his right leg, resulting in severe pain and swelling. Extended walking, as would be required without the use of a golf cart, aggravates the condition.

The PGA Tour argued that walking is an integral part of the game of golf, and allowing one player to use a cart would provide that player with an unfair advantage. The tour cited examples of players who had faced heat, injury and exhaustion yet managed to walk the course. Martin pointed out that any of those conditions would be added to the daily pain he endures.

On February 11 in federal district court, Martin won the right to use a cart, but it was not a clear victory. The PGA Tour said it would appeal, and other golf associations are not bound by the ruling.

Ironically, not long after the court ruling, the United States Golf Association announced that it would grant Jack Nicklaus a special three-year exemption from the age requirement for the U.S. Open. Nicklaus will not have to qualify as every other participant must.

Golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez spoke in support of Martin, making reference to former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s use of a wheelchair. If he could run the country from a wheelchair, Rodriguez pointed out, then Casey Martin certainly should be allowed to play golf using a cart. Besides, Rodriguez said, the cart doesn’t hit the ball for Martin.

So Easy to Ignore the Disabled

Individuals with disabilities comprise 20 percent of the population, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau report.

Despite those numbers, Mary Jane Owen, executive director of the National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities and herself disabled, says it is still "very easy to ignore us, and it is very comforting to forget that we exist."

Tom Martin, director of the Southern Maryland Center for Independent Living, said that surveys show that many people with disabilities are low-income and poorly educated. "They’re the poorest of the poor, the least educated, the most abused of the abused," says Owen.

Given those statistics, shouldn’t we be celebrating Martin’s achievements rather than impeding his progress?

Examining Our Own Attitudes

The U.S. bishops and the Catholic Church have been working for decades to bring individuals with disabilities into fuller and more active participation in the Church community.

In their 1978 Pastoral Statement on the Handicapped, the U.S. bishops pointed out, "Few of us would admit to being prejudiced against handicapped people....Even if we do not look down upon handicapped people, we tend all too often to think of them as somehow apart—not fully ‘one of us.’"

In 1995, the bishops once again dealt with the issue of individuals with disabilities. In Guidelines for Celebration of the Sacraments With Persons With Disabilities, the bishops addressed not just our attitudes toward disabled persons, but also ways in which we as a community can be more inviting and improve our ministry to this long-neglected population of the Church.

"It is essential that all forms of the liturgy be completely accessible to persons with disabilities since these forms are the essence of the spiritual tie that binds the Christian community together. To exclude members of the parish from these celebrations of the life of the Church, even by passive omission, is to deny the reality of that community," the bishops said.

When we invite people into the parish, it is so we can welcome them into our family and all experience a more fulfilled participation.

Throughout the Bible there are stories of Christ making himself present to persons with disabilities. By making himself available to these men and women, Christ showed their important role in his earthly mission. The bishops pointed out that "handicapped persons became witnesses for Christ, his healing of their bodies a sign of the spiritual healing he brought to all people." Do we make ourselves present to those with disabilities as Christ did?

Focusing on the Real Issue

The PGA Tour was partially right in saying that the real issue was not Casey Martin, but rather a change in the rules. But the issue is also much larger than that. The issue on which we should be focusing is our attitude toward and perception of those in our society with disabilities. How do we react to the Casey Martins in our life? That is the true issue and the one we should all ponder in our hearts and exemplify with our actions.

So as we reflect on the case of Casey Martin and the PGA Tour, let us heed the words of the U.S. bishops when they urged "people of goodwill to reexamine their attitudes toward their handicapped brothers and sisters and promote their well-being, acting with the sense of justice and the compassion that the Lord so clearly desires."

The time certainly is right. Casey Martin and the PGA Tour have provided us with a perfect teaching moment for ourselves. —S.H.B.

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