The word "can’t" is not in Dick Hoyt’s vocabulary. The 65- year-old father of three made this decision after the birth of his oldest son, Rick, in 1962. During delivery, Rick’s umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck and cut off oxygen to his brain. Rick suffered extensive brain damage and was left without the ability to normally develop. Doctors told Dick and his wife Judy that Rick wouldn’t be able to walk, talk, or communicate. “They said to ‘forget Rick,’” Dick recalls. “That was never an option for us.”
Instead of placing their child in a residential care facility as the doctors had recommended, the Hoyts brought Rick to their home in Massachusetts and raised him as they had always planned. Five years later, the Hoyts had two more boys and continued to create an atmosphere of inclusion and acceptance. The Hoyts were able to teach Rick the alphabet and using a specially manufactured computer pad, Rick was able to communicate with his family by typing out sentences. His dad remembers his first message: “Go Bruins.”
But what happened next is even more inspirational, and the reason why Dick and Rick Hoyt will be the featured guests at IDEAL Day in Downtown Evansville on March 17. The event, featuring a range of activities from a 7K run to dance lessons, is designed to call attention to the fact that March is Disabilities Awareness Month.
Rick is proof that the label of “disability” is misleading. As a child, he went everywhere the family went and was never told he couldn’t achieve something. It was in that spirit in 1977 that Dick agreed to help Rick participate in a five-mile benefit run for a local lacrosse player who had been paralyzed in an accident. The plan was for Dick to push Rick in his wheelchair so the two could compete as a team. But for Dick, who was 35 and out of shape, the task wasn’t easy. The pair finished next to last, but the greatest achievement came after the race when Rick told his father that he didn’t feel handicapped when they were competing.
It was that sentiment that sent the father/son “Team Hoyt” into a near constant schedule of racing, swimming, and cycling across the county. Rick completes the courses pushed in his wheelchair, pulled in a boat behind his swimming dad, or perched in a seat attached to the front of a bicycle. The two completed all these tasks competing in an Ironman Triathlon with a time of 13:43:37.
“What we want people to realize is that people with disabilities are real people,” Dick says. “They should be included in everyday activities and have the opportunity to do things everyone else can do. There’s always a way to do it, you just have to find it.”
For Dick, there’s no limit to what he will do so that his son can enjoy the same activities as others. He got in shape to improve their race times. He learned to swim to compete in triathlons. For the first part of their athletic tour, Dick thought it was Rick getting the most out of their participation. But when preparing to run their 23rd Boston Marathon, Dick learned he had a severe cholesterol problem and had suffered a “silent heart attack.” A doctor then told Dick that if he hadn’t started working out when he did, he would have had a considerably shorter life. In a way, Rick saved his father’s life—proving the doctors who told Dick his son “would just be a vegetable” wrong.
“Rick is so much more,” Dick says. “They said ‘he can’t do this,’ ‘he can’t do that,’ and here he is a high school graduate, a graduate of Boston University with a degree in special education, and a job at Boston College’s computer laboratory. He lives by himself, he competes in these events—that’s the way it should be.”
In 1992, the Hoyt Fund was created to enhance the lives and mobility of people with disabilities. Dick and Rick began traveling the country and sharing their inspirational story and message.
“It makes me feel good to share this with others because it helps so many people,” Dick says.
It was an e-mail that contained a story about the Hoyts that prompted Evansville resident Jim Bush to contact Team Hoyt to bring their inspirational story to Evansville. Bush had received the e-mail from his personal trainer as a tool for encouragement and motivation. Bush says he remembered the Hoyts’ story from a television appearance they made in 1999 while competing in an Ironman endurace competition. When Bush received the e-mail, he was working on organizing the annual St. Patrick’s Day Run of Luck race in Evansville and knew he and his fellow race organizers were looking to incorporate a speaker into the event.
“I contacted Dick and he and Rick were available during the dates of the race,” Bush says. “I knew they would be a perfect addition to the line-up. We were looking for ways to spice up the race and really give it a big splash this year.”
After talking with Mick Conati, a friend of Bush’s and the executive director of Downtown Evansville Inc., Bush learned of Conati’s involvement in IDEAL Day, an event new to Evansville last year. IDEAL stands for Individuals with Disabilities Entertainment and Activities Land, and the day’s events are designed to bring together children and adults with and without disabilities for a day of fun and inspiration. Bush and Conati decided to link the Run of Luck with IDEAL Day.
“Our hope was that the children without disabilities would have a positive experience during these activities with kids that they might not normally come into contact with,” Conati says. “The whole day is centered around focusing on abilities, not disabilities.”
Last year’s IDEAL Day event drew about 500 children and their parents. Conati says event organizers knew they wanted to make the day an annual event after witnessing the reaction of people who attended.“The kids had a ball,” Conati says. “I think a lot of the parents got more out of it than the kids did. It’s a day that’s all about acceptance and inclusion and it really comes through with everything we do.”
Bush says his involvement with disabilities awareness has helped him deal with his own level of acceptance for others.
“I think it’s a message we can all stand to hear and think about,” Bush says.
As part of the day’s message of inclusion, Bush and Conati welcome any local group who wishes to raise awareness to have a presence during the day’s events. For more information, visit www.idealday.net, or contact Conati at (812) 424-2986.