Don’t call Marty Turcios inspiring. Yes, he motivates and challenges his students, but not simply because he’s a golf coach with cerebral palsy.
Instead, his students say it’s his commitment to self-directed learning that is so empowering.
At the center of his coaching is this question: “When we teach, are we teaching people to think for themselves?”
On Friday mornings, Turcios critiques non-disabled UC Berkeley students’ golf swings at the Tilden Park driving range. Some regulars have been coming for two years; others are holding a golf club for the first time.
For the uninitiated, it is surprising to see Turcios, with his spastic movements and halting gait, swing a golf club. But Turcios says his disability is not his problem—“my problem is how people look at me with a disability.”
The Social Model of Disability
In the 1960s, the disability rights movement grew out of the movement for civil rights. Activists criticized what they called the medical model of disability—the idea that people with, say, cerebral palsy are broken and must be rehabilitated by medical experts to rejoin society—in other words, to “fix” them.
The social model of disability, by contrast, says that people with disabilities are actually the experts on their conditions, and that they should be free to define their own normal. Society’s role is not to fix them, but to remove barriers to independent living by providing housing subsidies, assistive technology, choice of medical providers and other help.
Ingrid Tischer of the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund says misconceptions are a common burden for those with disabilities. “Nobody wants to carry around being the personification of everyone’s worst nightmare.”
Turcios says cerebral palsy is not as disabling as the stereotypes that come with it. “It’s a dismissive attitude—‘we’ll let you do this, but it’s not real—you’re not doing it the way we would.” He says, if it weren’t for him, disability and all, teaching autistic students and those from the VA, “they wouldn’t have that opportunity at all.”
Every Tuesday, a Veterans Administration van brings patients to a Concord driving range for Turcios’ instruction. “I really connect with them,” Turcios said, “because I probably suffered PTSD too, only from the way I had to grow up.”
He feels like he’s had to defend his achievements—earning a master’s degree in therapeutic recreation at San Jose State, starting a nonprofit organization to support his coaching. “There are even members of my family who think [my work] is a joke or affirmative action,” he said. “It’s sad.”
Stella Young, the late satirist and disability activist, discussed the negative effects of people’s stereotypes, even if they’re well-meaning. In a TED talk titled “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much, “ she said, “I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve been approached by strangers wanting to tell me that they think I’m brave or inspirational … just kind of congratulating me for managing to get up in the morning and remember my own name. It’s objectifying …” she said, calling the phenomenon “inspiration porn.”
The burden of these stereotypes contributed to Turcios’ alcoholism. He’s been sober for decades, but says, “I could fall apart all over again in a heartbeat. That’s the reality of my life.”
Coaching gives him stability and a sense of meaning. “I love to watch people—disabled and non-disabled— be successful at something they thought they couldn’t do,” he said. “To watch people change their outlook.”
And, he said, “in a lot of ways I’m helping myself more than anything else. I’m getting out of my head, and that’s why it works so well.”