Sunday, 5 October 2014

Roller derby for Aspies

I'd like to talk about roller derby.

roller derby
Not the guys I tried out with, but this is the general idea
Don't worry, I haven't taken complete leave of my senses and signed up for one of the few sports that involves competing in makeup and stockings.  But earlier this year, I almost had a go at roller derby.  I say "almost" because the come-and-try day went so wrong so fast I ended up walking out in a huff.  This was probably a good thing, because it meant I never got to the point where I would, inevitably, have done myself a genuine injury and possibly taken half a dozen other people out with me.

I did, however, learn a bit from the experience.  Obviously the most important thing I learned was "don't do roller derby", but I also gleaned a few other what-not-to-dos when it comes to running a sporting event.  Particularly, there are a few lessons in this mess of fail for running events that are welcoming and accessible for people on the spectrum.

1.  Be explicit in the invitation

The ad for this event said it was open to all ages and levels of fitness and you didn't need experience.  Being a literal sort, I took them at their word.  But when I turned up, I was the only one over 20 years or 60 kilos, and also the only one not in roller derby costume.  I know I probably shouldn't let being the oldest/fattest/most different one bother me as much as it does, but it did send a very clear message right from the outset that I really didn't belong there.

If you're short on space or places or resources and want to limit the team to people who played last year or who already have the skills needed, then do that.  It's your club, your game, there's no rule that says you have to include every random who rocks up.  But don't say "everyone welcome" unless you mean it.  And if there's a dress code, say so.

2.  Find out about your participants

Nobody wants some nosy knob demanding information for no reason.  I once did a reiki course where we were told to ask whether the subject was pregnant before doing anything, but then told it didn't make any difference to what we did.  So why sodding ask?!  But if you're going to send someone hurtling around a stadium on roller skates in very close proximity to other people also moving at speed, it strikes me as prudent to check whether they have any issues that affect, say, their balance, co-ordination or motor skills.

3.  Explain what the hell is going on

I don't really know how roller derby works.  I know it involves a lot of fit young women with names like Kandy Kru$h wearing fishnets and hotpants and skating fast in a circle.  I probably would have picked it up eventually, but I had more immediate problems in that the come-and-try day was more or less anarchy. 

Nobody appeared to be in charge, if there was a schedule or a plan it was a closely guarded secret, and there wasn't even a 'hi and welcome, new people!' talk at the start - probably because they either didn't want or weren't expecting new people.  You just turned up and either sat around chatting or put on the skates that were thrust towards you and started skating.

For a person on the spectrum, this is the shittiest way possible to run an event.  You couldn't design an event more likely to make an Aspie say "fuck this" and walk out, except possibly by adding some jackhammers and a couple of flickering lights. 

And I don't think this is just an issue for people on the spectrum - most people, regardless of their neurology, feel more at ease when they have some understanding of and control over their surroundings.  Having no clear outline for the afternoon and no designated person in charge is fine if it's just a bunch of friends hanging out.  But if it's a public event, the public will be more comfortable and able to participate if they know what the hell is going on.

4.  If you're going to teach, teach

I was given a pair of skates, some knee and elbow pads, and orders to put them on.  It was a chair-free environment so I found a space on the floor, parked myself down and set about figuring out how all these odd plastic and velcro assemblages worked.  Eventually I had myself dolled up like Robocop, and it was time to get up.  Problem:  I have no idea how one is supposed to go from being seated on the floor to a standing position while wearing roller skates.

I'd last worn roller skates when I was about eight, and even back then the roller disco had a row of plastic chairs to sit on while putting your skates on.  And when you inevitably fell over, you crawled to the nearest wall, grabbed the rail and hauled yourself upright through sheer upper body strength while your lower half tried to take off in two different directions.

It obviously can be done, because various other people levitated into a standing position somehow, but I didn't know how and those who did it were too quick for me to follow what they did.  What I needed was a demonstration, preferably a slow one, possibly followed by someone talking me through the movements as I did them while holding my arm so I didn't go arse over head.  What I got was some side-eye for taking so long but otherwise ignored.

It comes back to that question of whether they wanted newbies or not.  If they didn't, they should have just put 'experienced skaters only' on the ad and been done with it.  But if they did, they should have given someone the job of keeping an eye on the newbies and teaching us stuff we needed to know to participate.

5.  Pay attention

Since nobody noticed I hadn't managed to stand up, nobody noticed when I sneakily took the paraphernalia off again, left it in a heap and bailed with a shred of dignity intact.  I didn't lose on the deal, because it cost me nothing but an afternoon and if nothing else I got a blog post out of it (and possibly a few minutes of stand up comedy as well.)  But if you're hosting a come-and-try day because you need new players, having them unhappy enough to walk out after ten minutes isn't a great result.  Paying attention to what's going on means you're more likely to notice if someone's upset, pissed off or needs help.  That means you can intervene before it escalates to the point of them bailing.