Monday, September 19, 2016

I wish this viral video hadn't made you cry


A teen wakes up, eats breakfast and goes to school. He attends classes, chats with friends, eats lunch. He's a handsome guy with a big smile who's popular at school. In the afternoon, he manages the school's football team. Then he goes home, does homework, maybe watches TV, goes to sleep.

Would you call this teen an inspiration? Likely not. He's just a teen doing what teens do.

Now, say that you know that this teen has cerebral palsy. Would you call him an inspiration? A whole lot of people would.

This is on my mind because of a story and video that's going viral: On September 9, Fossil Ridge High Homecoming King Max Atkin handed over his crown to longtime friend K.L. Norwood. The football team manager, K.L. had also been nominated to be King. He happens to have cerebral palsy. "I think it should have gone to the person who positively uplifts the school and everyone else around him the most and that person is K.L., for sure," Max told local Dallas news station WFAA. The crowd chanted K.L.'s name at halftime.



Every fall and every prom season, variations of this story make headlines. Sometimes, the story involves teens nominating peers with disability to be homecoming kings and queens. Sometimes football players allow a peer with disability to play during a game, or enable him to make a touchdown.

Like other special needs parents, I have mixed feelings about all of this. If I'd never had a child with special needs, I'm sure that I would have also only felt the warm-fuzzies when I saw this video. Except I do have a child with special needs. And videos like this make me ache for true inclusion for him.

Thanks to social media, millions of people see these sort of videos and read these stories, often declaring them "heartwarming." They choke up and they cry because they are taken by how "kind" students are to those with special needs. They are glad for the "good deed," which might restore their faith in humanity. But these reactions are based on perceptions that have long plagued people with disability: that they are unfortunate human beings who deserve pity gestures, not parity.

To be sure, students showing the love for a peer with disability is a great thing. Max Atkin is one of the good kids of this world. My friend Maureen, who first sent me this video, noted that these kids are "teachers" who show others that everyone deserves to be celebrated for who they are. And no doubt, these happenings bring much bliss to the recipients. "It was absolutely terrific," K.L. said.

As parents of kids with special needs, of course we want them to be happy. And of course we want their fellow students to treat them well. Yet we also very much want our children to be included in life every single day. To naturally and organically be one of their peers, not an "inspiration" just because they are living their lives. And so, I worry that viral videos in which youth with special needs receive super-special treatment give people the wrong idea. I worry that people click, watch, cry and move on, never realizing or acknowledging the lonely and even alienated reality of our children's lives off the fields.

I realize that expressing dubious reactions to stories about teens with special needs who become king or queen for a day may be perplexing, even annoying, to people. What exactly do you special needs parents want, anyway?! You get upset when people dis or exclude your kids, and you get upset when they are treated like royalty! Get a grip! Quit getting so up in arms about everything!

Please understand: My reactions to these viral stories are based on my experiences raising a child with special needs, and my concerns stem from my longings and dreams for him. Max does not attend a general public school so I can't comment on that but in every other aspect of life, inclusion has not been the norm. Sometimes, it is difficult for people to simply acknowledge his presence. Sometimes, people don't know how to behave around him or what to say. Sometimes people stare. Sometimes kids snicker. Rarely have they invited him to play.

Everyday acceptance and inclusion are the dreams I have for my son. I don't wish for him to be put on a pedestal or revered; I'd like him to be treated like other guys his age. Just another teen who may have some visible challenges, but at heart is still a teen.

Happily, K.L. Norwood does seem to be a regular part of the high school crowd, as far as I could tell when I scrolled through photos on his Twitter feed. Joshua Michael Richardson, a teacher at Fossil Ridge, commented on ABC's Facebook page that students are generally accepting and inclusive:

These young men represent over 2,000 adolescents at my school who are bursting with character, who are honest, and show genuine compassion for one another every day. We don't really have bullying problems or prejudice. We are diverse, from every ethnicity you can imagine, to every religion and every socioeconomic status. They grow up learning to treat one another with dignity and respect, something so many people elsewhere should learn to do. These kids are learning and achieving great things. These two and every kid they represent at FRHS encapsulate the great things that are happening at our school. Hats off to Max and KL. Two fine young men. So proud of them and all my kids.

Yes, exactly: Two fine young men.

True inclusion of children and teens with special needs doesn't make headlines or crop up on Facebook feeds. It means everyday mingling and interacting: Kids playing with them at playgrounds, sitting with them at lunch (assuming they'd like that), joking around with them, inviting them to events and parties. It means joining together in inclusive sports programs and extracurricular programs that level the playing field. It means recognizing that the football team manager with cerebral palsy has abilities, just as the football hero does.

And so, as people feel all the feels for these viral videos, I'd like them to know that grand gestures are not enough for our children and they are certainly not the answer, even if these students mean to do right. Nor are they a happy ending, although perhaps they can help launch conversations and awareness about the ideal: Students who treat those with disabilities as true peers every single day.


Also see:
How parents can talk to kids about ones with special needs
What I'd like you to say to my kid with special needs
8 ways to include kids with special needs in sports

Top image: Twitter

18 comments:

  1. Interesting timing, because I've been thinking about how the media portrays cerebral palsy and those who have it. I strongly dislike the fact that the media deems those with CP inspirational when they're just people trying to get through life like everyone else. I also have an issue with the fact that Max gave his crown to K.L. Was it a nice thing to do? Of course, but I sincerely doubt Max would have given up his king's crown for a student who did not have a visible physical disability. By singling out a student with CP, Max is unintentionally othering him, even if the intent was magnanimous. It is my hope that people with CP that is visible enough for their peers to see it to be able to enjoy the Homecoming and Prom seasons without being turned into "inspiration porn".

    And if you're wondering where I'm coming from on this disability-wise, I'm a person with mild hemiplegia CP that's generally not perceptible to others.

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    1. *will be able to enjoy the Homecoming and Prom seasons

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    2. That is my exact hope too. I've said many times that I wish for the day when stories like these don't make headlines.

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  2. I think that under all the 'king/queen/scoring' for a day is the very rudiments of inclusion. The kids are leading the way. it's a start. It's acknowledgement to peers ---of ----peerness. be careful with criticisms....maybe offer guidance instead-because further development needs to be nurtured.

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    1. Two great points. I tried my best not to come off as critical of these kids, as I know their actions were well-intentioned. In terms of guidance, well, sometimes, I write just to get something off my chest. This time I just left it at a mention that these stories could get conversations going .But I could have included links with guidance; I’ve added some above. Thank you.

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    2. I wasn't criticizing what you wrote at all. commenting in general-because we still have some problems with human rights overall.
      also, we are seeing one event deemed news-worthy when there may be many 'un news worthy' typical, organic inclusion every day.

      I am a mild spastic hemi- you can only 'tell' when I am tired. I am glad that the tone of society is moving toward acceptance and no longer trying so hard to hide kids with differences away.

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  3. I don't mind when kids with special needs get king, queen or court. It is one of those things LOTS of high school kids want. I just don't want to hear about their special needs - this shouldn't have anything to do with why the student body elected them. They should be elected because they are a great kid - not a great kid with a disability. While I'm sure the young man had the best intentions, I wish he hadn't done it the way it was done. In hind-sight, encouraging everyone to vote for K.L. would have perhaps been a better route. But you know what they say about hind-sight...

    Last year several of the middle schoolers (including my son) were honored at the end of the year awards ceremony. Most awards are based on teacher nomination. But this group of kids (who get most of their academics in the sped environment) had never been included before. The awards their teacher nominated them for were based on their abilities. And each student received awards in different areas. The teacher took it seriously. I was one proud mom that night.

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    1. Janet, this made my night. Glad to hear it!

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  4. I hope we get to a day where the inclusion of peers with disabilities is not seen as amazing because it happens everyday. And if a teen with a disability ends up on a homecoming or prom court it's because their peers chose them the same way they would choose any of their other peers.

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    1. Agreed! As Janet says above, the ideal would be that these teens' disability doesn't come into play. The problem is that viral stories like these encourage the opposite.

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  5. I agree that some of the "heartwarming" videos send the wrong message and offer pity instead of inclusion. But this video says they have been best friends since 5th grade- the quarterback thought his friend deserved it. I don't think it was an empty gesture to include a student with a disability, it seems like KL is already involved in high school activities and friendships.

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    1. Yes, I noted they were longtime friends and that K.L. does seem to be a regular part of the crowd at school. But I still wonder about messages gestures like this send to the masses. Would the homecoming king have done this for a friend without disability?

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  6. Speaking of the achievements and milestones of disabled teens, I have a solo for LVYO. My first public solo will be with a full symphony orchestra.

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    1. Anna, that is fantastic!!! What an achievement. I am so proud of you.

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  7. I do understand the point the article makes. I have a daughter who is 14 with Down syndrome. It's important to look at the big picture. What I believe the media stories on Homecoming Queens, etc. serve is that they are examples of the progression of inclusion. It's important to keep historical perspective in mind as we watch the unfolding of inclusion. Where we are currently in this progression, is that we have students with intellectual disabilities in classes in schools and students in general education classes in schools. As a result, general education students have an awareness of these students that did not exist in the past. What is being recognized in this article is the fact that we have not met our goal yet, but I would argue that this is a step in the right direction. We can't go from A to Z with this movement, we are watching the culture change. Janet Giel-Romo

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    1. Thanks, Janet. You are so right to point out the progress. While I'd like to think these stories show people that we need to include those with disability, mainly I worry that they make our children out to be unfortunate creatures in need of grandiose gestures. And that does nothing to lift people's often lowly perceptions of youth with special needs.

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  8. I saw someone post this on facebook, and I have a few questions. I don't have children with special needs (yet, at least) but was friends with some kids at my school that had "special needs", including going to prom and such with a few of them. I feel like my friend group really loved these individuals and we tried to include them in things as much as possible, but here is where I think the good intentions don't turn into inclusion. Fear. Fear of not knowing if they have behavioral things that we wouldn't know how to handle, or fear of if the parent's would want us inviting them to hang out with us on a Friday night. For most of our friends with special needs, they went to church with one or two of the other kids in our group, so they knew the parent's and the families well enough to feel comfortable asking them to come to things with us, but there were boys I became friends with at school at lunchtime, and I always felt hesitant asking them to do things outside of school because I didn't know what their parent's would think or if they'd think I had malicious intentions. Does that make sense? I am not really sure what can be done. Eventually I just went out on a limb with two of them, and tried to contact them either on the phone or through a letter, telling them someone they knew who knew me and could vouch for me, and ask if they'd be okay with me inviting their kids to do things with us outside of school.
    But I also think it's scary as a high schooler to invite a child with say, autism, to come hang out, because we don't know every thing about them and worry that something could go wrong and we wouldn't know how to handle it. Does this make sense? For example, when I went to pick up my friend with down syndrome as my date for the Sadie Hawkin's dance, his family was giving him insulin shots, and I had NO IDEA he was diabetic. It kind of scared me that I didn't know how to deal with it, but his parent's assured me that they took take care of everything and he'd be good the rest of the night. But that kind of stuff is scary and intimidating for a teenager. And sometimes the safety of staying away from that situation is more appealing than the discomfort of having to ask questions.
    I guess it would be nice if parent's had invited us (if they'd known we were friends at school) to a party or something and explained some things about them to us, or we somehow got information. Maybe they did in elementary school with their classes or peers, but I only knew these friends in high school, and was never part of something like that. I think things like that help. Anyways, just my two cents. Because I really do want to maybe adopt children with special needs someday, because my friends in high school changed my life and I still communicate with them through social media 6 years later, and really honestly just want to help and hear back about this. I think this is important and want to be part of the change of things. Thanks!

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    1. Kaylee, this is such a thoughtful and honest comment, thank you for taking time to share your thoughts. Everything you say makes complete sense, I get where you are coming from. I can't speak for all parents (and Max has CP, not autism) but I can say that if another teen asked me about hanging with Max, I'd be thrilled (assuming Max was into it, of course). Children and teens with disability can be isolated; as a parent, I welcome the outreach. In terms of a hangout and doing something outside of school, it seems like it would be a good idea to first do a hangout or two at the other teen’s home. That teen would feel comfortable there and a parent would be around in case the visiting friend had any questions. You sound like a wonderful young woman. Someone will be very lucky to have you as a parent someday.

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Thanks for sharing!



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