The Slippery Slope of Special Treatment

One of my commenters recently shared a link to this article:

Player With Down Syndrome Kicked Off Team

In all honesty, I’m not sure I understand all the outrage.  I mean, I do – I do understand the hurt feelings and the disappointment being experienced by this teen and his family – but I guess I don’t actually agree with it.

You know what my first thought was when I read the article?  Probably not what you might expect it would be from a parent of a child with Down syndrome.  My first thought was, “This kid never should have been on the football team in the first place.”

See, here’s the thing:  I don’t want my kid to be anybody’s mascot.  These feel-good stories you come across from time to time about the kid with Down syndrome being on the high school water polo team, or being crowned Homecoming King . . . those stories always make me wonder.  And they always leave a slightly unpleasant taste in my mouth.

The article in question says, “. . . a student with Down Syndrome who would suit up and cheer during every varsity game, eventually earning the right to lead the team onto the field and run a touchdown play after every game. He even scored one official touchdown in a game.”  Wow.  He even scored one official touchdown in a game!  That’s so great.  It’s so heartwarming how the community gets to feel like such do-gooders over this kid, isn’t it?

Yeah, well, no thanks.  To me, this represents another form of marginalization and dehumanization.  If my kid is going to be in the club, or on the team, I want it to be on his own merits and abilities – not as some charity case of inclusion that affords everyone around him an opportunity to give themselves a collective pat on the back for being so big that they can get past the fact that he has Down syndrome (gasp!).

And the truth is, the fact that he has Down syndrome will necessarily preclude him from being able to do certain things.  I can accept that, and I’d like to think that my husband and I are raising all of our kids with realistic expectations – lofty goals, yes, but also the ability to accept whatever limitations they might have (and they all have limitations – we all do) and deal with them with grace and dignity.  I do not want Finn to grow up receiving or expecting all kinds of special treatment just because he has Down syndrome.  This is a separate issue, in my mind, from making accommodations for him to receive an equal education with his typical peers.  Yes, I want to see him fully included in a typical public school so that he can received the same education his brothers and sisters are receiving, and so he can benefit from non-disabled role models, but I don’t want him to be the token disabled kid, included in extracurricular activities as an act of charity.

Whether this kid on the football team should be allowed to continue as a “full-fledged” (ha!  he was never really a full-fledged team member, now was he?) team member, I can’t say.  It seems to me, from the article, anyway, that the school is between a rock and a hard place, and that it has attempted to handle the situation as sensitively as possible.  Part of me thinks, well, yeah, if the kid is still actually enrolled as a high school senior, then the age limit shouldn’t apply.  On the other hand, because of his age, he gets to do things – like vote (yes, a person with Down syndrome can vote) – that his underage classmates cannot do.  It is a slippery slope when the rules are bent to accommodate people with special needs like this as a matter of charity, and I, for one, am not completely in favor of it.  I want my kid to be respected and valued for who he is as a person.  When he starts being treated “special,” that’s just another form of discrimination.

, , , , ,

13 Comments on “The Slippery Slope of Special Treatment”

  1. Grace
    August 11, 2011 at 4:04 pm #

    I COMPLETELY AGREE! I have a one year old with DS and I always tell my husband, if he can’t do what everyone can do on a team, in a classroom, at a party, then he shouldn’t be there or expected to just “get in” because of his DS, that to me is the SAME as pushing him out because of it, I want him judged as Nolan NOT DS, for GOOD AND BAD! Thank you for saying it WAY better than that!

  2. Alyson
    August 11, 2011 at 4:25 pm #

    While Cullen does not have DS I do understand the sentiment. I do want him to be included but in a real way not as a ” mascot” or ” charity case”.
    I do want people to understand his disabilities and take them into consideration but he doesn’t need to be the star of anyone’s pity party.
    Great thoughts Lisa:)

  3. Sarah Head
    August 11, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

    I see this differently~ I see my son thrilled to be a part of any games that his Dad and brothers are playing, is he playing the exact same way they are? No~ but is he loving it no matter what? Yes! I would never dream to tell him he could not participate in an activity just because he’s not playing exactly the same as everyone else or as a “charity case”. Who am I to tell him he’s not going to be a mascot? Why would I assume that the community feels like do gooders just because they are enjoying watch a young man be a part of something and feel good about it! I wouldn’t call it special treatment because he happens to have Down Syndrome, I would call it humanity, and people realizing that everyone is different in their own way, and everyone should be able to be a part of something that make them happy regardless of what their differences are. It seems your thinking more about how it would make you feel and what you want for your son and less about how it might make this young man feel. If he feels elated and excited because he got a touchdown, no matter how he might have gotten it, why would you want to take that away from him?

  4. Jaida
    August 11, 2011 at 6:32 pm #

    I agree with you Lisa. It bothers me when I feel like parents pick and choose when they’d like their child to be treated as “special.” While there is a fundamental difference between, as you say, wanting your child to have the same opportunities as his peers in education and wanting them to be given special allowances in other arenas, you can’t have it both ways. Or, if you choose to differentiate like that, you can’t be surprised when society has a hard time keeping up with how you want your child to be treated. While I would hope that efforts are made to include Pacey in various activities to the best of his ability, I don’t expect rules to be bent or changed for us. No more than I would expect a child born with normal chromosomes but a short, petite stature to be “allowed” to score a touchdown in a game they aren’t naturally suited to play.

    I also agree that, while it makes for a feel-good story, those “official touchdown” scenarios leave a bad taste in my mouth too. It just feels patronizing.

  5. Jackie
    August 11, 2011 at 10:51 pm #

    Hi Lisa, do you mind if I post this on another blog? She also wrote how she feels about this but I really wanted her to see how you put your thoughts down. Both of you are parents of children with DS and you both have a different view, you write so well and I can see both points of view. I really don’t know if there is a “right” answer to this. If the boy really enjoys it and wants to then I don’t see the harm in letting him continue, however after reading your post, I’m just not sure anymore. I can share her blog with you if you would like!

    • Lisa
      August 11, 2011 at 11:03 pm #

      Jackie, yes, you are welcome to share this elswhere, and to forward her blog to me!

  6. Diane Miller Sheets
    August 11, 2011 at 11:42 pm #

    I always love reading your posts, Lisa. This one has me conflicted tho – but in a genuinely curious way.
    I agree with you on the age thing – the child is too old, those are the rules, done deal. does it suck that this kid cannot participate in the same way he has for the last 3 years? absolutely. but rules are rules are rules … we’ve been through high school sports and even tho rules are there for a reason, they still suck for someone.
    I also totally understand what you are saying about the “do-gooders” and such, sometimes it all sounds a little “let’s bring us some attention by helping this kid” … but WHAT IF Finn came to you and expressed a genuine interest in being a part of the team? and WHAT IF he knew his restrictions and was more than fine with being the water boy or the towel boy or the equipment manager or whatever they are calling it these days? I mean, in our school they allow any student to do these jobs, but yes, we have had students with disabilities of some sort do them as well. usually kids who had participated in the sport growing up in a rec setting or a VIP program, but still, someone is there to do it.
    I share the same thinking in the respect that I don’t feel my child should be put on any team just because she wants to play. I disagree with seniors being pushed to varsity JUST BECAUSE they are seniors, but if my child said, “I didn’t make the team but they need someone to pass out water at half time and during substitutions, can I do it?” I’d let her. If it came with a letter – cool! if it meant she got out of HS PE – cool-er! (I was the HS baseball scorekeeper – that came with some benefits that rocked!) I’m just wondering what you would do if Finn asked because it was what he really wanted?

    • Lisa
      August 12, 2011 at 12:15 am #

      Really good questions, Diane. I think part of the problem is that oftentimes, the kid himself is taken out of the equation and not allowed to think for him- or herself. Of course, I haven’t even considered what Finn might want! I’ve considered what I, his mom, want. If a scenario like you describe presents itself in the future, I guess Michael and I will have to jump off that bridge then. In the meantime, I stand by what I said about charity inclusion and not wanting Finn to be anyone’s mascot.

      Giving it a little more thought, I guess if Finn really wanted to be part of a sports team, I’d like to think we could find something for him that he would enjoy that would actually be appropriately challenging and competitive for his abilities, whatever they end up being. And that’s not to say I want him relegated to the Special Olympics . . . I have mixed feelings about that as well.

      It’s a slippery slope, I tell ya.

  7. Renee Garcia
    August 12, 2011 at 1:01 am #

    Hi Lisa,
    Someone linked me to your post on my blog because I posted about this story, too. 🙂 I posted a little different view. Personally, I love hearing the stories of the kids with Down syndrome being crowned homecoming king and queen… I don’t think it’s a charity case. Now I admit, I wonder EVERY time I hear that story if there’s some jilted homecoming queen who’s livid about this decision out there… but that could be because I’ve watched WAY too many “Mean Girls” movies! HA! 😉 Seriously though, at least from what the news shows, these kids at these schools truly love these kids with Down syndrome and I don’t get the sense of pity. Maybe I’m wrong. I’m not there.

    As far as Brett goes, my thought is that he’s a high school senior. He’s already ON the team. He should get to play. Age shouldn’t matter. I wonder why they they even HAVE this age stipulation to begin with? Do I see my girls playing varsity volleyball in high school? Hmm… probably not. Of course Kennedy is SO girly, I can’t imagine she’d want to… she might break a nail ;). However, I CAN see her wanting to be on the cheerleading squad. I wouldn’t want her being a mascot or charity case either though. Now Kellsey, she may want to get out on the soccer field and knock some people over. We’ll see! 😉

    Right now, at 7 years old, Kennedy just made it onto her first competition dance squad. There is one other little boy with Down syndrome, and the two of them are the only ones with special needs. They had to try out for the company, and it’s a mini company so it’s not like it was too hard, but there WERE kids who didn’t make it and I know that the fact that they had Ds had nothing to do with them making it. We don’t expect them to get any special treatment. Their teacher expects them to work hard, learn their routines, and do everything that all the other kids have to do.

    I agree, it is a slippery slope… we have to fight for inclusion at every turn… school, sports, sometimes even church, and we want our kids to be seen as kids… and we want what’s fair, but sometimes there’s this gray area of “fair”, and I guess we all need to decide what that is for our child. Thanks for your blog, it did give a great “other side of the coin” view to this story. 🙂

    BTW, (And then I’ll shut up! haha) someone posted on my FB page today that they did come to an agreement on Brett’s football career… just in case you haven’t read it yet… and really, I’m not sure how I feel about THIS decision, either! 😉

    • Lisa
      August 12, 2011 at 1:25 am #

      Hi Renee, I remember your blog from when I was reading all kinds of Ds blogs all the time. You might remember me from Finnian’s Journey 🙂

      As for the reason for the age rule, a lawyer friend of mine (who also has high school kids who participate in sports at a very competitive level) said this: “the purpose of the rule is to prevent older kids from starting school late for the sports advantage. They don’t want college size kids playing on a high school team. Unfair advantage for the team, and the kid who is competing for potential scholarships.” Makes sense. She also said that this doesn’t seem to apply in this case, which is true, but again, start bending the rules for one person, and I think the school would suddenly find itself being called on to bend the rules for a whole slew of people. I mean, where do you draw the line as far as disability goes? Should this age rule be bent only for kids with Ds? What about kids with ADHD or autism? What about dyslexia?

      Anyway, I do see where you’re coming from.

  8. Chrystal
    August 12, 2011 at 7:29 pm #

    Just now reading this and it appears that we share some common thoughts on the topic. I just wrote briefly about it earlier today.

    I would, though, perhaps be ok with my kid being on the team. Maybe. I don’t know. And honestly, that’s a Me Issue, not an M Issue, y’know? I’d hate to see her out there floundering, but if she’s happy on the bench, I guess I’d have to learn to be ok with that. No pity touchdowns or crowns though. No, no, no.

  9. Megan
    July 28, 2012 at 8:02 pm #

    You know, the homecoming king/queen stuff doesn’t bug me. There was a kid with disabilities in my area who won prom king… because he knew EVERYONE at school. That’s such an arbitrary thing anyway. But the “included to be nice” on a team… that REALLY bugs me. Ellie is little now, not old enough for sports yet. But I want her to play with her peers, either competitively (and in gymnastics, that might be realistic!), in a no-cut type sport where all kids compete (cross country, which I will push for with all my might as a runner, meaning she’ll hate it), or in Special Olympics if her physical limitations keep her out of participating on a high school level.

    But as a “mascot” player? No thank you. If she makes the team on merit, with longer time to process coach directions? Absolutely.

  10. Alison
    July 30, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

    Yeah, I have mixed feelings here. I’m pretty negative about the kid with Down syndrome as mascot. But I’m also a big believer in the fact that full integration means accommodation: everybody doesn’t have to be “at the same point” or “keeping up” for kids to be in a classroom together. The curriculum differs for every kid. And I guess the same thing applies on the playing field: for meaningful community, different players can be doing different things.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: