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 the golf swings of able-bodied UC Berkeley students 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 spasmodic movements and halting gait, swing a golf club. But he says his disability is not his problem: “My problem is how people look at me with a 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, which is 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.
Another barrier is the baggage that comes along with having a disability. Ingrid Tischer of the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund says misconceptions are a common burden. “Nobody wants to carry around being the personification of everyone’s worst nightmare,” she says.
Turcios, for his part, 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 that if it weren't for him, disability and all, activities such as teaching golf in Concord to autistic teens and vets with PTSD wouldn't happen at all.
Turcios, who is 55 and lives in Martinez, provides instruction every Tuesday to Veterans Administration patients at a Concord driving range. “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, such as earning a master’s degree in therapeutic recreation at San Jose State and 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."
The late satirist and disability activist Stella Young discussed the negative effects of 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.”