Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Don't dis our kids' abilities

This video has been making the rounds on Facebook for a while now; a reader left a link to it the other day. It's about Jason McElwain, then a senior and basketball manager at Greece Athena High School in Rochester, NY. He has autism. The coach put him in the last game of the year, with four minutes to go. What you'll see will have you standing and cheering too (and maybe sobbing).


There's something that occurred to me as I watched the video. The other students couldn't have been cheering Jason on any more enthusiastically, yet the adults seemed somewhat dubious about him. Condescending, even. The reporter noted that the school has a "most unlikely hero" and that the coach "decided to let Jason actually suit up." The coach said, "If I wasn't there to witness it, I wouldn't have believed it."

Hearing this stuff bums me out, because it makes me acutely aware of how so many people view kids with special needs. Their expectations are low. They can't see our kids' possibilities, only their challenges. They disbelieve they are capable. They dis their abilities.

I am obviously not the most objective person, but I just can't understand why people seem so awed when kids and adults with special needs achieve. Yes, my son has challenges to overcome, but his cerebral palsy doesn't hamper his motivation and determination. He may lack skills in certain areas, but he has talents in others. Like any children, those with disabilities have their strengths and weaknesses. Why is it so damn hard to believe when their strengths shine through?

I may sound hypocritical, I realize, because as a parent of a child with special needs I constantly cheer him on; every step forward is worth celebrating, every new skill a big deal, every inchstone a milestone. I share them all here. But that's my role as a parent. Besides, I am not shocked or surprised to see my child succeeding; I expect it.

I wish for the day when kids with autism and other special needs are regular members of high school sports teams, and of society, too. I wish for the day when their special needs do not make people think they have scored "despite" their disabilities, but because they had the drive and talent. I wish for the day when #52 on the basketball team is a Video of the Week not because he has autism... but because he played a great game, period.

I wish that if you are reading this, you would believe in our kids' powers to succeed.

38 comments:

  1. Bet that coach was thinking "Crap--I should've been using this kid on the floor from the git-go!!!"

    He's a 3 point natural!

    Great story and video. Inspiring!

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  2. The first few times I saw the video, I was ecstatic for Jason and the team, but I also noticed what you did - the comments that were said kind of made my skin crawl. Something seems so wrong about "actually suit up" and some of the other statements.

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  3. Boy, those paradigm changes in adults sure do come slowly, don't they?! And it's tiresome having people speak inclusion, yet be so slow to practice it. Thanks for bringing this to the fore today, Ellen!

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  4. I couldn't agree with you more! In the similar videos that have made their rounds on the internet, I have always thought the same thing. Very well put.

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  5. Since J-Mac is a hometown hero, I saw all the coverage about his great game (and subsequent coverage including when he met the President, etc).

    There is a follow-up video out there that was done last year. Jason is now an assistant coach for his alma mater's basketball team, which made me happy to hear, but he also is doing this in a volunteer capacity, not paid (according to the piece) and while Jason says his career goal is to coach at the college level, the "adults" in the piece make it clear they don't think that is feasible. Again, burned my butter just as the condescension did in the original.

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  6. I did love in the video how the kids were cheering like wild from the get-go-- obviously that kid has quite a personality and was well-loved even before he sank a shot. And that is an ability that many wish they had!

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  7. I always believe in his abilities. I have been doubted all my life, but I have come to see when people believe in me, it is the believers that have changed and I have always been the same. I feel like whatever I do is held to a different standard, and my achievements are minimized. "Well, that's because you had a lot of support." Maybe I did. But there were also most things I did by myself. I have come to realize that a lot of my fears about finding another job are due to attitudes like this coach has.

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  8. That video makes me cry every time I see it!

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  9. I remember watching that last year (or whenever it was it came out) and I teared up, for sure. Just an incredible story with an even more incredible out-pour from the fans and his teammates.

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  10. I agree with you Ellen. We're trying to change the way people think!!

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  11. Unfortunately Ellen, this attitude only increases with age. And as a young professional, the workforce is a minefield of wildly divergent expectations and underestimations.

    I have a visible disability: CP causing me to use a wheelchair. Because of this people are always overcompensating when I accomplish something. Like "wow, she graduated from college, top of her class, despite being in a wheelchair."

    And I want to say, "no I did all that because I worked my a** off, albeit while sitting in a chair but that's all."

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  12. I think back to decades ago when disabilities were even less accepted and understood and parents were advised to institutionalize their kids - and lots were - because doctors didn't believe that those kids would "amount to anything." Lots has changed with the times, yet some things still seem to remain the same. I like what Felicia said about the coach in that video and how he could have been thinking that he was wrong to wait so long to let that kid suit up. In a sense, I say that if that coach is feeling any sort of regret, good, he should be.

    My best friend's brother has Down Syndrome. When he was born, his mother was advised by her doctor to put the baby in an institution because he "wouldn't amount to much." His mother refused. Now Ralph is 52 years old, and while he still lives with his parents, he is basically self sufficient, has a job at a hospital, loves to cook, enjoys going to Atlantic City (his favorite are the slots), and is addicted to reading John Grisham novels. How that could be defined as "not amounting to much" is beyond me!

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  13. I do love that video, as a mom to a kid with super powers, and a former basketball player! And I have to agree that the attitude of the adults was upsetting. But I was just so happy to see all the support he was getting from his peers - that is what it's all about!!

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  14. Loved this, Ellen! I couldn't agree with you more!

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  15. Excellent post -- I, too, was a bit teary-eyed watching the video when I saw it a few days ago, but, like you, became troubled with the attitude of the coaches and adults. Kids with disabilities are definitely held to a different standard. I bristle whenever someone over-enthusiastically compliments my son (who has CP) for doing or saying something that a "typical" 7-year-old would do or say. He can't just be a 7yo child; he is always seen as the kid with CP first. Every time he surpasses someone's (low) expectations of what he is capable of, he is called "inspirational" or a "hero." Not that I don't celebrate what he can do ... but it bothers me how little anyone else expects him to do ...

    Thanks for letting me vent a bit!! This post struck a chord ... Again, awesome post!

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  16. thank you, thank you for this. I read your blog all the time --- and love your stories about your kids and experiences :)

    I was thinking about this exact thing the other day when I saw so many people reposting it. Why in the world was it a big deal ... he should've been on the team to begin with!

    thanks for your voice :)

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  17. Thank you, Ellen, for saying what I thought when I saw this video. The overall condescending tone and the comments by the adults made my blood boil. However the fact that this video is going viral (I've seen it on several feeds) means many more people are watching what this young man can do, and that he is much more than just his autism.

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  18. awesome.
    that is a few years old, though. he lives in my area.
    those adult comments are why we still have parents who have to fight for every last thing for their kids. people don't know that our kids can do these things. there are a lot of ignorant adults out there.

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  19. ‎"I wish for the day when their special needs do not make people think they have scored "despite" their disabilities, but because they had the drive and talent." So. Right. On.

    It *is* an amazing video; I think we all get that. Thanks so much, Ellen, for raising the issues about it that need to be raised. You hit the mark exactly and eloquently!

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  20. I'm pretty much just cried/cheered at this post :) I agree 100% and love that you wrote this.

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  21. I really love the don't dis your child's abilities theme. I'ma take this and run with it.

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  22. Beautiful and encouraging post.

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  23. Thanks for this! So well written!

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  24. That actually lifts my spirits as I think it's a generational thing. The boy's PEERS were all energy and enthusiasm - they went to school with him, they knew him. The ADULTS in the boy's life are still products of an older generation, one where kids with Ds were only just staying at home rather than being institutionalized.

    Even though the older generation is the one with the power now and has the ability to sign bills and so forth, I don't care about them as much as I do the attitudes of our kid's PEERS; those peers are going to be the ones to grow up and change the world.

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  25. you know the video is great. I love seeing autism shown in positive light. However that said. it makes me angry. WHY was he just a towel boy/equipment manager??? Just because he was autistic they figured he wasn't able to do what other people did? It proves he was probably more capabable then some of the kids on the team, and that he for sure had more heart and emotion for the game then anyone else. Why did he have to wait until the very last game in the last few minutes?

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  26. Hurray for you, Ellen! My first thought when I saw this video several years ago was "Why wasn't he on the team?" And now he's in a VOLUNTEER position? How many of their assistant coaches are volunteers?

    My son has been an usher in church for most of his 55 years. He does a great job and takes it very seriously. When we moved to a different city, he volunteered as an usher in our new church. A friend of ours said "I think it's so nice they let him usher!"

    I hope my bristles showed!

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  27. Yep, parts of this rubbed me the wrong way too... why didn't they just put the boy on the team if he could shoot? In the narration, they say "at five feet whatever, he didn't make the basketball team." but is that really *why* he didn't make the team??

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  28. Thanks so much for sharing that. I hadn't seen it.

    I didn't like the way the reporter set it up (a most unlikely hero, etc.)

    I did love seeing the spontaneous outburst of joy from his teammates and the kids watching the game.

    It made me sad to read another comment here that gave an update and said he's working as an assistant manager of a team but "unpaid!

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  29. I really love the video. Today I'd cheer that loud if Mikey could just manage to have a haircut!

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  30. I have attended the local high school graduation nearly every year for 10 years now. When a student with obvious special needs walks/rolls up to receive the diploma, the crowd, and the class goes wild. It brings tears to my eyes every single time.

    Because we are a small public school in an arts community, the musical talents of the graduating class are always showcased in some way. Recently a young man with special needs brought his guitar to the front of the stage and led the entire hall in an Arlo Guthrie tune. He had everyone clapping and singing along. Uhye, pass the tissues.

    I think there's a perception of diminished expectations because no one knows what to expect, and so we sometimes have to step back and let the kid in the wheel chair show us what he can do, and where he just might need help.

    There's still a ways to go, but we have come a long way from when I was in HS, almost 30 years ago. We're all still learning.

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  31. I remember when this came out. And I remember being deeply, deeply uncomfortable with how the story was shown.

    The coach isn't a hero for "letting" the guy play. The coach is kind of a butthead for not having him on the team for realsies. THe coach is a bigger butthead for acting like he's such a standup guy or whatever for "letting" him suit up.

    And of course "person with disability does XYZ fairly normal thing, be inspired to tears" makes me gag. A lot.

    But then, I'm an autistic athlete and I was not, in fact, born to 'inspire' people, whatever that means.

    Be inspired bc he had an amazing game, not that he did it while autistic, you know?

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  32. Yes! I couldn't agree more yet would never say it so politely. Hopefully your gift for prose will resonate with more advocates. We need to have some changing of the guard because many of our "spokespeople" are full of pity and lack respect as well. The bar needs to raise mostly in us?

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  33. Hi! Just came across your blog today, and this post hit home! I felt exactly what you describe here! I saw it posted on FB and held my tongue. The very fact that this was even a news story bothered me. I mean, it's not like it was a pet cat that kept scoring. I couldn't see why it was so unbelievable for a student with special needs to be excelling in a game in that way! I am a mother of a child with special needs and an elementary school teacher. Thanks for posting this!

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  34. I agree with you Ellen when people find out I'm raising money to build a well for people who don't have water they're like "you're so inspiring" and although I appreciate their kind words I often wonder if they would say that to an able-bodied person who's doing the same thing I'm doing.

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  35. I have a pet cat he is mildly spacial needs he does not play basket ball

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    1. Cats don't play basketball.

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    2. Anon that's not how you spell special. And you can't assume a cat has special needs just because he/she doesn't play basketball.

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Thanks for sharing!