How Sox broadcaster's Benetti's 'Awkward Moments' promotes understanding of disabilities
Life can be awkward for Jason Benetti.
Not because he's the White Sox TV play-by-play guy who lives smack dab between Guaranteed Rate Field and Wrigley. Not because he has a bad habit of accidentally wearing the opposing team's colors during game-day broadcasts. And not because of how he talks or does his job or interacts in the booth with Steve Stone or in the clubhouse with the Sox players or management.
Life can be awkward for Benetti because of how cerebral palsy affects the way he walks, because of how it affects the way his eyes move, because when people meet him, they often act "on autopilot" and don't think before they speak.
Benetti, 35, of Chicago's River North neighborhood, is not trying to rid his life of the awkwardness, but to make something of it.
In his "Awkward Moments" video campaign for the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, Benetti is a voice of reason and of humor, a narrator explaining the false assumptions and misperceptions he's encountered during uncomfortable exchanges in his own life.
He's a voice of education, encouraging parents to foster their children's curiosity and teach them why people with disabilities are no more pitiable or inspirational than people without.
And he's a voice of truth, speaking from experience as he looks to spread the understanding that people with disabilities, above all, are people.
Benetti is a person who has cerebral palsy.
It's a disorder in which damage to the developing brain leads to troubles with muscle control, frequently affecting walking, balance, movement and speech.
Benetti walks with an unusual gait and has what he describes in the first "Awkward Moments" video as eyes "that go in totally different directions," giving him "the world's best peripheral vision." But he said cerebral palsy affects him less than it does many others, who might use wheelchairs to get around or assistive technology to communicate.
"There's this wide array, and so to even pretend to speak for the cerebral palsy community is a fiction," Benetti said.
Yet speaking up is something at which Benetti excels, said Brooks Boyer, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the White Sox.
"He cares deeply about his craft and the platform his craft provides him. His empathy, life experiences and attitude connect him, in some way, to everyone," Boyer said. "He is utilizing his platform to serve as a voice for so many others who want to be heard."
And one thing Benetti wants to say is that awkward misunderstandings permeate life for all with disabilities, no matter their differences.
"Perceptually," he said, "we all have the same issues: that people have an opinion of us that is marginally or completely incorrect."
Those mistaken opinions are what the "Awkward Moments" campaign aims to address.
Benetti co-wrote the videos with Richard Ellensen, former CEO of the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, hoping to point out the "situational absurdities" people face when they don't walk, talk, move or look like the majority of the population. He recorded some of his voice-overs for the videos while on the road for his job with the Sox, or his job calling college football and basketball games for ESPN.
"People have this across-the-board reaction to what they're seeing," Benetti said. "So let's have a little fun with it and see if we can maybe change a couple of reactions."
In one video called "The Disability Lookaway," Benetti recounts a strange double-take he caught a woman giving him as they crossed paths on a sidewalk.
In his favorite in the series, he encourages parents to let their children ask questions -- even less-than-tactful ones like, "What's wrong with that man?" -- about anyone they encounter with a disability.
"You know, I actually love the 'Disability Blurt-Out,'" he says in the recording. "Because if kids don't ask, they don't get a good answer."
The answer Benetti wants children -- and the public at large -- to receive about people with disabilities is they're all different, not to be treated with one set of behaviors. You don't always have to offer extra help or always respond with amazement when they're able to do things -- like carry luggage through an airport -- for themselves.
Placing the wrong set of expectations on people with disabilities is a behavior the campaign calls "Disbelieveability," or "the condition of observing a person with disabilities do something completely typical for them, which you feel like, 'Oh my goodness! I can't believe they're doing this.'"
"When you make assumptions, understand where they come from" -- that's Benetti's advice. And when explaining how to act around people with disabilities, give a reason other than, "because we've always done it this way."
"All you're doing then is perpetuating the stereotype of, 'Ssh, hush. Don't talk about that person,'" he said. "I'm not a relic. I'm not an ogre. I'm a person who has a thing that's different than your way of walking around the world. So let's just talk about it. But the not giving the 'why' just perpetuates the stereotype."
'Kids just get it'
By doing his job during every White Sox game, Benetti is shattering stereotypes "that people with disabilities can't be in these roles," said Rachel Byrne, executive director of the Cerebral Palsy Foundation.
"They absolutely have all the skills, and obviously Jason is phenomenal at what he does," Byrne said.
On camera, Benetti is perceptive, always looking for that little snippet of something unusual to share with viewers and never afraid to throw in the isolated big word, like his current favorite, "defenestration," which means "to throw something out a window."
Boyer calls Benetti "one of the best in the business, combining his true love for the game of baseball with his passion for delivering the game to our fans."
"His insatiable quest for baseball knowledge, his quick wit, his attention to detail and the ideas he shares from a White Sox fan perspective enhances every single broadcast," Boyer said.
Off camera, Benetti is just as thoughtful, careful to explain the way he hopes "Awkward Moments" can break further into schools and help children learn to accept and include their peers with disabilities.
"They're always curious about the world around them. So if at early ages, we educate these kids that this (person with a disability) can just be another one of your friends -- not a friend that you tote along, or not a friend that you are friends with out of pity, or not a friend that is a curiosity or a trinket, but just a person -- I think then kids just get it," he said. "And they transmit that to their kids at an early age."
The Cerebral Palsy Foundation has been testing the "Awkward Moments" videos as part of its "Just Say Hi" curriculum with 100,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade in New York City. The organization now is ready to expand use of the videos to more schools, Byrne said. Educators interested in integrating the videos into their classrooms can contact Tracy Pickar at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Benetti knows he can't avoid every awkward moment off camera any more than he can make the Sox win every baseball game.
But he hopes, through continuation of the "Awkward Moments" campaign, to encourage people to regain some of the curiosity he said can help them understand those who are different.
"It makes people think," he said about the video campaign. "And that's all you can ask for."