By JULIE MACK
MATTAWAN, Mich. (AP) — It's afternoon practice for the Mattawan High School tennis team, and junior varsity coach Steve Norton sends off four kids to play a doubles match.
Soon, the four are taking turns whacking the ball over the net.
No mention is made of Caleb's disability, or the accommodations that allow him to play tennis with able-bodied teens.
And although one player uses a wheelchair, it's a fairly typical tennis match. All four make some difficult shots, including Caleb. All four, including Caleb, make some obvious flubs.
In fact, while Norton and varsity tennis coach Dave Breithaupt are struck by the novelty of a kid in a wheelchair on the tennis team — the first in his 19 years, Breithaupt says — the players themselves are nonchalant.
They've grown up with Caleb, who has attended Mattawan schools since kindergarten. They largely see him the way he sees himself: A 15-year-old who is "physical, competitive, outgoing"; a boy who likes sports, hates math and talks too much in class.
True to form, on this particular afternoon, Caleb is the chattiest one on the court. Defaulting on a serve, he acknowledges matter-of-factly to his teammates: "That did not go so well. Not whatsoever." Straining to make a shot that his partner could have made easier, Caleb shakes his head. "I got greedy," he says. "I got very greedy."
When his partner blows a play and mutters, "I got too aggressive," Caleb shrugs it off.
"That's all right," Caleb says. "I'm always aggressive."
Caleb has spina bifida, a condition where the central nervous system fails to develop properly in utero. The birth defect spans a wide range of outcomes, from minimal impact — rock singer John Mellencamp has spina bifida — to profound mental and physical disability.
In Caleb's case, spina bifida has left his legs paralyzed. He also has only one working kidney and requires a shunt to keep fluid from building up in his brain. The latter condition, called hydropcephalus, is linked to a higher risk of Attention Deficit Disorder and learning disabilities that can affect reading comprehension and math skills.
Although the lifespan and prognosis for people with spina bifida has improved considerably over the past half-century, the number of babies born with the condition has gone down.
Asked how Caleb's disability impacts students' perceptions of him, Jeremy looked perplexed.
"I've never thought of him as being different," Jeremy said. "He's just another Caleb."