Kansas City, October 11, 2016: The darkened auditorium at Melcher Elementary School thundered with thudding feet as David Brown shouted instructions and students, eyes squeezed shut, imagined themselves as world champions sprinting around a 400-meter track.
“100 METERS – TAKE THE TURN!” Mr. Brown hollered as the students huffed and stomped. After crossing the imaginary finish line, the students opened their eyes and breathed deep and laughed.
Brown is blind and could not see the students, but he could sense their exhilaration because he knows what it’s like to be the fastest runner on a race track. As a world champion member of the U.S. Paralympic team, he has been called “the fastest blind man in the world.”
During a visit to Melcher Elementary on Tuesday, Oct. 11, Brown shared his inspiring story as a student with a disability and as a Paralympic gold medalist. The assembly was a chance for students to learn first-hand why it’s important to respect all their classmates and never let challenges keep them from achieving their dreams.
“Be yourself. Don’t be afraid of who you are,” Brown told the students. “At the same time, don’t make fun of somebody just because they look or act different than you. Don’t be that person.”
Brown was prompted to visit Melcher Elementary after getting a letter from one of the school’s students, according to Principal Patricia Hayes. The letter-writer – one of several students with disabilities – asked Brown to help classmates understand their challenges.
“I was excited when David agreed to come here, because he gives our students a completely different perspective on what it means to be a person with a disability,” Hayes said. “Our word of the week is, ‘Respect.’ They’ve learned to respect David and that respect will extend to their classmates.”
Brown talked about being disrespected as a child after developing glaucoma and losing his eyesight. The bullying stopped when he started beating all the other students in playground footraces.
“They learned that I’m a regular kid just like them,” Brown said. “And I learned that I could be the best at something, even with my disability.”
Brown, 23, went on to success in wrestling and then track through high school and into the elite ranks of international Paralympic competition. He is currently the only totally blind man in the world to finish the 100-meter sprint in under 11 seconds; he took the gold in that event at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio.
The assembled students asked questions and listened closely as Brown described the challenges of training and competing while blind, including sprinting around the track in tandem while tethered to his coach. He had the students close their eyes and imagine what that would be like while mimicking his coach’s commands.
The pivotal moment in Brown’s life came when he decided he wasn’t going to be remembered as a person who was defined in a negative way by his disability. He encouraged the students to take the same approach to their own lives.
“Don’t let bad things that happen slow you down. We can grow to be gold medalists,” Brown said. “How do you want to be remembered?”