Toronto

Whitby boy to throw out first pitch for Toronto Blue Jays for deafblindness awareness

When 10-year-old Alex Graham throws out the first pitch for the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday, he'll be ready. Not only has he been practising daily since January, he'll be using his hands, something his parents say have been his favourite toy since birth.

For Alex Graham, whose namesake grandfather loved the Jays, Wednesday will have special personal meaning

Alex Graham, 10, practicing everyday since January, for the moment when he'll throw out the first pitch when the Jays take on the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday in commemoration of Deafblind Awareness Month. (Devin Heroux/CBC)

As the stadium lights shine and he plants his feet on the mound, Alex Graham will be gripping the ball with confidence.

He's been practicing for the moment ever since the start of the new year, when his family learned he'd have the opportunity to throw out the pitch when the Jays take on the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday in commemoration of Deafblind Awareness Month.

But while he may not have known it then, his preparation actually began the day he was born. From the very beginning, his mother, his hands were one of the first things he enjoyed playing with.

"His first toy was his hands... It's like the toy that never goes out of style for him," Sue Graham said ahead of the big day.

'There's no language for that'

Graham, 10, from Whitby, Ont., is — as his mother describes him — gentle, sweet, cuddly, a little sneaky and, as he likes to be reminded, handsome.

But when he was about a year old, his family learned that Graham was vision-impaired. At two years old, they also learned that he was deaf. And at three years old he was diagnosed with CHARGE syndrome.

The acronym is used to describe a cluster of symptoms including a gap in the structure of the eye, heart defects, renal problems, limited physical growth and abnormalities of the ear.

While he may not know it, Alex Graham, actually been preparing for Wednesday since he was born. His hands, says his mother, were one of the first things he enjoyed playing with. (Devin Heroux)

That meant Graham would join about 65,000 Canadians, who live with deafblindness.

And it involved a learning curve for his family, with Graham's parents having to learn to advocate for him, choosing the right school program and learning to communicate with him in ways they may not have anticipated, primarily through sign and touch.

One of the lessons his mother learned early was having extra patience. Graham, she says, needs a longer processing time to understand what's being communicated to him.

Not so for cuddling, said Sue Graham. "It's easy, there's no language for that."

Condition can be 'very isolating'

But communicating outside of home brings its challenges. At school, he's lucky to have access to intervenor services, but as executive director of the Canadian Deafblind Association Ontario Chapter, Cathy Proll points out, that's a service not accessible to many outside of school hours.

"Deafblindness can be very isolating, so having those intervenor services just allows them to be part of society," said Proll.

In Ontario, she says, there's just one community college program that trains intervenors. On a good year about 17 intervenors come out of the program at George Brown College.

Executive director of the Canadian Deafblind Association Ontario Chapter, Cathy Proll, points out her organization hires about 300 intervenors each year and have to do most of their own training. (CBC)

"Awareness is actually one of our greatest challenges," said Proll, which is in part why Wednesday will be the seventh time the organization is taking part in throwing out the first pitch.

Being on that big stage with thousands watching is an important part of raising that awareness, she says. 

And it's equally pivotal for the families who have been a part of the journey.     

"For the families it's a moment where their child is shining. It has such an impact," said Proll.

A shared love for the game

More than 200 people will be in attendance in CDBA Ontario seats on Wednesday — the most ever, according to the organization — including five of Graham's schoolmates and their intervenors from W. Ross Macdonald School in Brantford.

But the pitch will also have special personal meaning for Graham's family, who will also be at the game together with a large contingent of friends.

Alex Graham, says his mother, never met the man he was named after.

Alex Woropay died in 2004, before his grandson was even born. But two share much more in common than their names, including a love for the Jays.

"My dad was a huge Jays fan," says Sue Graham. "And he would have loved to have seen Alex throw the pitch. I'm getting emotional and I know I'm going to get emotional on game day."

"I know he's going to be there in spirit."

With files from Devin Heroux

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