Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Should kids with special needs get special sports treatment?

It's fall, which means glorious leaves, crisp nights, roasted pumpkin seeds and a steady stream of Google alerts about kids with special needs getting special football treatment.

Like this story about Noah VanVoreen, a high school senior in Wisconsin with Down syndrome and the Little Chute High School team's "waterboy." He finally got his chance to take the field; at the end of a recent game, they handed him the ball and let him score an "honorary" touchdown that didn't count toward the score. The crowd went wild. "I feel great!" Noah said. "I scored a touchdown. It was great." His parents were thrilled, too.

And this story about Preston Bryan, a 10-year-old in Tennessee with cerebral palsy who's a member of the Eagleville Junior football team but never plays. He asked to participate in a game. Again, both teams agreed to let him score a touchdown; all the players ran alongside as his father pushed his wheelchair down the field.  

Then there's this story about Simon Roussel, manager of the Mandeville High School football team for the last 10 years who has Down syndrome. After eight years on the sideline, the news reports, the senior got to put a uniform on. Following the opening kickoff, he ran 80 yards for the touchdown. "It's a memory he'll always have," his mom said.

While football season brings a rush of these stories, they're happening with more frequency throughout the year, too. You've probably seen the viral video of Jason McElwain, a high school senior with autism who was manager of his school's basketball team; the coach let him into the last game, and he scored 20 points in three minutes. Or the wrestling match video that went viral in which a seventh grader intentionally lost to a schoolmate with cerebral palsy.

Last year, I wrote about an awesome kid with CP who got to score a touchdown on his school's football team. In the months that have followed, I keep seeing the stories crop up. While kids with special needs may have always gotten special passes here and there, social media seems to have made the phenomenon explode, giving kids, coaches and parents ideas.

As the parent of a child with disability, I read the stories and watch the videos and I'm happy for the kids and parents. But lately, I've had concerns.

What happens after the kid's moment in the spotlight is over? Preston Bryan told his mom he wanted to play every week, "for his fans." Has that happened?

What do these plays teach people about kids and teens with disabilities? The crowds may feel all fuzzy (these stories are often described as "heartwarming"), and the affection and exuberance other athletes show is real. Still, does this further reinforce the idea that kids with special needs are very different than other kids—ones who can't be a usual part of the team? As parents of kids with special needs, we know they kick butt‚ but people who don't otherwise have a person with special needs in their lives may get the wrong impression.

At the heart of it, I'm concerned that people see these stories mostly as instances of goodwill and kindness, ways to make the lives of seemingly unfortunate kids just a little better and give them a moment of glory. It's like the scoreboard might as well be flashing "AWWWWW...." This is the opposite of what I wish for Max and other kids with special needs: For people to see their abilities and the ways they are like other kids. For people not to pity them. For people to include them...regularly so.

Are these sports scores one step forward for our kids' happiness, one step backward for disability awareness?

I'm not talking about spontaneous acts of team spirit and camaraderie, as happened when this boy with cerebral palsy ran at his school's Field Day. I'm talking about planned wins for kids with disabilities.

For perspective, I reached out to some people in the special needs field. "It is a challenge for us not to want to celebrate the positive aspects of these moments," acknowledges Andrea Cahn of Special Olympics. "Yet it's just not quite there yet when we strive for true equality and social inclusion between those with and without intellectual disabilities."

One answer is more programs that encourage inclusion both on and off the field: "There must be opportunities for young people to form friendships and relationships so we can go beyond 'doing the right thing' of helping another feel good for a brief moment in time," notes Cahn. She is Senior Director of Project Unify, a multi-faceted program that involves athletes with and without intellectual disabilities playing together as teammates, along with education and leadership initiatives.

Another idea is to more consistently involve kids with disabilities in other ways on teams—true sportsmanship. In fact, some of the kids in these stories were already part of their team. "In high school athletics, the goal is to win the game," notes Katy Ness, Senior Vice President of Government Initiatives for Easter Seals and a longtime disability advocate. "The goal is also to understand that each member of the team has different strengths and that the power of the group is bigger than the power of one individual. Some individuals may have strengths in physical prowess. Others may master the strategy and provide the emotional glue that keeps a team together during good times and bad."

The ethical matter of whether these kids and teens have their moments in the spotlight and never play again is one school officials and coaches should be pondering, along with the bigger question of how to more organically include students with special needs in activities. Meanwhile, parents have to make decisions that are right for their kids. Me, I'm grateful for sports programs for kids with disabilities, like the Little League Challenger Division team Max has been on that's let him succeed on his terms.

I haven't had to contend with a child's desire to play on a "regular" team since Max is in a school for kids with special needs. But if he wanted to make a play with a football team or any team, I'd say yes, unhesitatingly. I'd help make it happen. Then I'd watch Max gleefully trot down a field as players ran alongside him, our family and a crowd cheering him on—even as I wondered whether Team Special Needs might be losing points, and what might happen once my son's big moment on the field had passed.

Screen grab: Times Free Press


  1. I, too, have thoroughly mixed emotions about this whole thing. But that's not surprising to me, since I am still confused about my feelings on Down syndrome.
    Get back to me in ten years. Maybe I'll have it figured out by then. (Yeah, right...)

  2. You hit the nail on the head when you asked what happens "after" these events? What happens when the kid says he wants to play regularly? I don't know how I feel about these things. I'm sure it's magical for the child in the moment. But then everyone just goes back to the "old rules" of competition and the kid is sidelined for the rest of his life. Right? To be honest, the whole thing gives me a very sick feeling inside, in terms of how the youth would feel on an ongoing basis if nothing else changed in their life (in terms of meaningful relationship with the people on the team, or participation).

  3. I think it is a great moment for the kids, regardless of what happens afterwards. Many kids that are seemingly "normal" and have no type of intellectual disability "ride the pine" (sit the bench). There are a lot of lesson to be learned from sitting on the sidelines, sometimes you get to go in, sometimes you don't. Sometimes you get to be the "SUPER STAR" sometimes you are the reason your team lost the championship :-) (I sat the bench quite a bit, can you tell?!)

    In my opinion youth sports are an opportunity to enforce life lessons. Recreational leagues should include everyone. My son loves sports! His older siblings play, his first public event ever was to a volleyball match, he likes to be a part. Why shouldn't he be able to be a part in a recreational league? And if one day he gets to score a touchdown....AWESOME!!!! Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, life goes on! :-)

  4. A story of Inclusion:
    First let me give you a little background information then please read the status update I shared last night.
    My son Shawn is 17 has epilepsy and developmental disabilities. We fought for him to be permitted to participate in the band at his High School after the administration of the school was resistant. Shawn participated in Beginning Band for three years at his previous middle school. This year is his second year in the High School Band, and he is finally actually enrolled in the class and getting a grade. He participates in Band with minimal assistance. He has a one on one teacher's assistant for class time but he has no assistant for after school practices or performances. This is what happened after his performance last night that neither his father nor I could attend due to finances.

    From Facebook: I just got home from picking Shawn up from his Dinner Theatre performance (Band) that we couldn't afford tickets to. When they finish and I go in to get Shawn, I see another mom hugging him. Shawn often has adults that he knows from school that we don't so I didn't think much of it. So I teased Shawn, "I caught you hugging a girl!" At that point the other mom turns to me and I see she is crying. She says, "my daughter is so proud of him. That's what she wants to do, Special Education Teacher. She comes home and tells me of the progress he is making, and I cry."
    I told her a little about Shawn but it was so busy we didn't get to talk much and I didn't find out her daughter's name. But THAT is why we fought so hard for Shawn to be in band.
    1. So Shawn can do something he loves, play music.
    2. So Shawn can interact with and learn good behaviors from typical students.
    3. So Shawn can show typical students how AWESOME he is.
    I really think my son can change the world one smile at a time. And I LOVE that a student has had such a positive interaction with Shawn that she shared it with her family.

    1. I'm autistic and I play the flute. I do not need noise reduction because internalize the pulse. Chair positions do not matter to be because it's simply enough to be in band.

  5. Excellent article and good topic to bring up. I think there can be a happy medium. I choose not to have my son play football because the amount of practice time is ridiculous for young children. So yes he has access to it but I can not change the rules of the coach to relax the practice schedule so we do not participate. He is allowed to participate in soccer where the practice time is reasonable. I think choices can be made that best suit you and your families needs regardless of disability.

    I do think certain sports are more suitable to be inclusive. A local cross country team has a student on the team with a physical disability. He participates in every race and completes every race. He does come in last. Some of his team mates chose to double back and re-run the last quarter of the race to encourage him. This student gets just as many cheers as the first runner. This is the case actually for all runners in cross country. I have seen the same take place for other students in the Spring during track and field. No one feels sorry for these runners, we feel empowered by their determination.

    I am not suggesting that if a student with a disability desperately wanted to play football should be excluded. But as a mother, I would not allow my son to participate in a sport where he may get injured. These decisions are made daily by all parents. Just recently a coach wanted a JV player to play on Varsity. His parents said no because it would put him at risk for injury.

    Overall, my opinion is to choose the best sport for your child that will encourage as much safe participation as possible.

    1. Very good point. I coach Special Olympics Track as do my daughter and son. My other daughter Karen runs in all the events and her sibblings and many of her friends from school come to cheer her on or help in Special Olympics. The kids get community service points while getting an education about our Pledge: "Let me win but if I can't win let me be brave in the attempt". We run unified teams in our relays as well. My oldest daughter is an XC runner and when she turned 18 Special Olympics mailed her on her birthday Head Coach status. Technically she always was. The program isa learning experiance for all kids especially our unified relay teams. I notice you hit my thought on the head. Cross Country (XC). XC in High school is a program where 9, 10, 11, 12 and Special needs all run together. The captains aren't freshman, JV... They are Captains of all those kids and the leadership comes from the seniors or Captains. Traditionall the highest GPA's come from the XC team as well. I will site one of our athletes who ran XC through out High School and was coached in Special Olympics by the kids as well. We all would wait for him running dead last and the kids would run back with him. Time after time dead last but who cared. Then one day he came over the hill holding two fingers up shouting: "I'm ahead of Two"! although he never was last in those kids eyes today and most every race after he didn't cross the finish line last. His high school career is over in XC but he belongs to the local running club and is a top runner for Special Olympics. Special Olympics is a phenominal organization. When the child is done with his moment of glory Special Olympics assures there will be many more!

    2. Happy to read your response and your similar experiences with Cross Country. After I wrote my comment I had wished I spoke more about the Special Olympics and the opportunities it provides for all participants - athletes and coaches. Well put!

    3. We play unified football with Special Olympics at Gillette Stadium. My son who is not handycapped played too. They were a team. My son was picked up like a rag doll and hugged and spun around after they won by an athlete. He loved it. I don't know much about this argument of right or wrong to allow Special Athletes to participate in High School Sports. I do think the sport the athlete chooses should reflect their abilities and if it doesn't Special Olympics will make sure it does. That's what we do. Let me give you an analogy. As a Intramural Basketball coach from 3 grade right thru 8 grade. I played at the level of my kids to encourage them and teach them to get better. I certainly didn't believe I was insulting them by not playing my hardest. I taught them one skill at a time. If they preformed it right they kicked my butt. Slowly I brought up the level of play and encouraged them all the way. An honest question here because I don't know. What is the difference between those kids on the high school team encouraging an athlete to do their best on the field and me as a coach letting those same High School kids years back kick my butt in hoop. I had no intent of insulting and yes I lied by bragging how bad they beat me. THey loved the sport. Some weren't good enough to play varsity and settled for intrameural and unfortunetly some just stopped playing. They found where they belonged as our Special athletes do in Special Olympics. This article poses an interesting delema. I have a Special needs child and she like to hang with the kids. They like her and play down to her. She competes at her own level in Special Olympics and those same kids coach her.

  6. How timely! My husband just posted last week about our daughter's experience with Special Olympics on his blog. I don't know that Jane will ever participate in mainstream sports, simply because the complex rules and strategies often overwhelm her. As far as I'm concerned, the inclusion model of the Special Olympics community should spill over to the mainstream community. Imagine a world where instead of competing be better than everyone else, we strive to just be the best "ME" we can be.


    "When Jane got hooked up with the Special Olympics several months ago, she finally had the opportunity to taste success. Between the Little Feet Meet and Special Olympics swimming, Jane has been able participate in athletic events where trying equals winning. She’s received gentle, patient coaching where the only thing to comprehend is to “just have fun.” As our society navigates its way through the ongoing insipid culture wars, you’ll often overhear people belittling the “Everyone Gets a Trophy” mentality of the bleeding hearts. From my view, it’s pretty freaking great that Jane can get a trophy for “merely” competing. As far as I’m concerned, she’s earned every bit of pride and happiness from the ribbons and medals she’s received. It takes a special brand of character to try when virtually all you’ve ever known is failure (insofar as our culture has conventionally defined the term). If Jane isn’t a winner, then I’m not sure what that word even means."

  7. What a timely piece - I've been thinking about this subject a lot lately and things came to a head for me personally last night.

    Sarah Kate plays on a regular rec league softball team and has been doing so for a couple of years. She has the mental ability and the hand-eye coordination necessary to hit and field, but she's incredibly slow at running - a major issue in 10U fast pitch, which she began this fall. At last night's game, she was walked (like I said, she knows not to swing at junk!) and when the next batter came up, the wild pitch got away from the catcher. She attempted to steal second, which is standard for this league.

    Only Sarah Kate isn't typical. A steal would have been easy for every other girl in the league, but not for her because she's so slow. I was standing behind home plate taking photos as Sarah Kate plodded toward second. The catcher retrieved the ball, pulled her arm back to attempt to throw her out, and ... hesitated, then threw the ball to the pitcher instead. At the exact same instant, I heard a low, barely audible murmur of "no" from the opposing team's spectators.

    Two batters later, Sarah Kate got walked home and scored her first run of the year. Both bleachers cheered.

    The stories of "planned" touchdowns and such bother me greatly, because I think at times they are a way for the planners to feel good about themselves or draw attention to their coaches' or players' benevolence - as you indicated, that's a setback for disability, not a step forward.

    But last night, no one conferred beforehand and no one planned for Sarah Kate to advance. Most, if not all, of the kids on both teams know her and have seen her give her all at practice and at games for four seasons now, and I believe in my heart that both the catcher and those spectators were motivated purely by the desire to see her succeed. I can never fault anyone for cheering for (and even helping a little) the underdog.

    1. Of course, the catcher should have attempted to throw to second base for the out. The fact the opposing team choose to see Sarah as a nonentity and ignored she as a player. She was robbed of a great opportunity.

    2. As an outsider who wasn't there and has heard only a few details, it may seem that way to you, but (and I rarely use this phrase in combox replies), You Are Wrong.

      These same girls have played with Sarah Kate for four seasons and they are no "gimmes" for her. She doesn't use a pinch runner (though she could) and many times she's been the "easy out" because she was so slow. She doesn't ask for special favors, and she doesn't get them - not in practice, and not in games.

      What great opportunity did she miss out on by being given - for once - an extra second or two because the pitcher hesitated?

      And though it's not relevant to the main point, I'll also posit an extra thought: if you've ever watched 10U girls rec league softball - not travel ball, just the fun kind - you'd know that throwing her out wasn't a given. Not by a long shot.

    3. Because the assumption here was the the catcher/pitcher would succeed and that Sarah Kate would fail. LIke you noted the throw could have missed, been overthrown, been dropped, etc and Sarah Kate may have successfully stolen second base. If Sarah Kate was thrown out at second which is the most common outcome of the tactic then just like everyone else, she tried.

    4. Hi, Anonymous. Your comment that, yes, of course, the catcher should have thrown her out is wrong. The catcher has several choices for that play. Hold the ball to check the runners (maybe the runner on third was trying to get a steal, too), ignore the steal from Sarah Kate and throw back to the pitcher, or attempt to gun the runner going for second (Sarah Kate). Totally depends on the situation of how many outs, how many people on base, the score, etc. Trying to throw the runner out at second is not "the most common outcome."

      Maybe the catcher's coach told her to ignore the steal. It's called Defensive Indifference. The runner is allowed to "steal," but it is not recorded as a steal in the stats. Look it up. Happens all the time in baseball. Part of the strategy. That's much more likely than the "pity base" you seem to think Andi's daughter was given.

      All that the catcher robbed Sarah Kate of is a tick in her stolen bases column.

  8. http://www.b93.com/pages/conrad.html?article=11773293&desktop=true&desktopviewduration=72000

    I have really mixed feelings about this. The CBS story here seems to indicate that the student was already a part of the team, although he didn't play. The team members were his friends, and he was included. Yes, they let him score, and yes, it made everyone feel great. I think in a case like this, it's okay.

    However, getting back to the story of the boy with CP who wanted to wrestle, and insisted on being in a match -- that one is not okay with me. The boy was so disabled that his dad carried him onto the floor and his competitor basically maneuvered the boy so that he was "pinned" under him. What did that teach anyone?

    I was a total klutz in high school. I would have loved to be a cheerleader. No amount of practice would have ever allowed me to be one. If I had a cognitive disability, should I have been allowed to be one anyway as a "feel good" kind of thing?

    Nobody is good at everything, and not everyone can participate and be a success at everything. That's a hard but important lesson to learn, and not just for typical kids.

    1. I agree with this. I would have loved to play sports in high school, but I wasn't able to keep up with my more coordinated, more athletic peers. Should they have invited me on the team, just because I wanted to be there? No.

      At least for high school sports, which require a try-out, a student should be admitted to the team if they can competently perform the sport, regardless of if they are neurotypical or not. In "the real world", nobody is going to hand you a participation trophy. That's something typical kids learn early, and it's a lesson important for everyone else too.

    2. it teaches them to whine to get what they want b/c others will feel "sorry" for them

  9. Ellen
    You are amazingly thoughtful. As an adult with a disability and as someone who has worked in special ed I can say you are a rare breath of fresh air.
    There may be some cases where these planned victories are cool but in general I am against them. Not everyone can do everything - disability or not. What about the terribly geeky but 'typical' kid? No one manufactures a chance for him to shine - why do so JUST because a kid is 'special.' Its so much more meaningful to find a way a child can truly be
    included and use his true gifts. But as long as people can create these situations, I'm afraid people will just overlook true inclusion.
    Look at the employment rates for adults with disabilities - it's still low and I argue part of the problem is the resistance to look for people's true talents. The change has to start somewhere.

    1. I agree 100%. We need to focus more on what children can do and follow those paths. Common core will not help this at all. Everyone has gifts and talents. A good teacher will help children discover those talents.

    2. I too agree with this. Each child has a gift, disabled or not and we should focus on those gifts/talents and as teachers/parents help to lead in the right direction. Although heartwarming I'm not for everyone making the team or given special treatment no matter your situation.

    3. Special needs or not. Play the game and let the child play football hard. If you can make the choice for him do so! Cynthia Chetoke

    4. Involve your boys in football! Cynthia Cheroke

  10. I don't have a child with special needs but I taught children with mental and physical disabilities and medical needs for 37 years. If anything is gained in thede "feel-good sports moments", perhaps it changed the hearts of the typical kids who assisted in the feat. Perhaps they will think twice before name-calling, staring, making fun of and or bullying those kids who don't have the strength or confidence to fight back. There are always concerns about kids with disabilities with accompanying factors...atlanto-axial dislocations, osteoporosis issues, shunts and so on. The biggest shame is that there is no stadium full of fans and cheerleaders when one of my kids sits up unaided for the first time, takes that first step, says that first word, takes that first spoonful of food to his or her mouth all on their own. Celebrations and cheering are not just to be heard on the football field or basketball court. There are so many amazing kids and young people in this world that were given "bleak outlooks" for a meaningful life by the medical community...many of these young people are now accomplishing phenomenal feats, living on their own, holding down jobs...being tax paying citizens of our communities. Let's remember to cheer for them off the fields and the courts! We are more the same than different!!

  11. Indeed these are remarkable events for those special children. How quickly we are to ignore the students labeled as non-athletic or nerdy, why can't these students get their 15 minutes of fame. Why does it seem that we cater to the athletes and those with special needs and forget all about those who might need the most help or acceptance? Don't get me wrong, I love reading about how a student with special needs gets a truly awesome accomplishment, what about that third stringer that bust his but all season and never sees the field. I played baseball and a so-so student, but if I was told to walk a batter or let him steal, I would, no doubt about it, but if we do not treat that moment as professional as possible is it wasted, maybe he gets thrown out, or strikes out why not give them a real moment they will never forget, an actual play.

  12. Let Me Win, but if I can not win let Me be Brave in the Attempt. This is what it's all about, and let's not forget about it. As Always Sam aka Paul's Dad. BTW Paul is A Special Olympian.

  13. I get what you mean Ellen it's like pity inclusion i'm concerned about it too.

  14. This blog took the words right out my mouth!

  15. I have zero athletic skills, but I'm a flute player. I'm fine with not being the featured soloist because I'm just grateful to be in band.

  16. I have such mixed views and emotions about this post. I've been in the bleachers and felt good about the way a child with special needs was allowed to make a basket. It was an incredibly heartwarming experience. And I could see that the other students who encouraged this young man were thrilled. But you are right. It cannot go on forever. It's one day. After, will they expect the moment to repeat itself? Yet, even with the most gifted athletes, there are only a few sports or other "moments" that truly stand out in their memory, i.e. the last basket within 1 second before the final bell sounds, the touchdown within seconds of the last quarter, a caught ball that seals a win, etc.

    When my kids were little (in the 80s) I was all for each kid winning a trophy at the end of the season. Now I'm not sure if that is such a good idea. Part of a parents job is teaching kids that there are winners and losers in sports and in the game of life. I think it is more important to teach them that they should work hard and be proud of the effort that they put into any endeavor. And if/when they lose, we need to be there to show them that losing isn't the end of the world. (Not that this is what this post is about.)

    I wasn't sure if you meant when you said that if Max asked to play on a football team if you were only referring to special needs teams or if you were thinking of a "regular" team. My daughter had wanted to play basketball on the high school team. That wouldn't have been possible for so many reasons, but one that I was most concerned with was that she might get hurt due to her disability. I didn't want to take that chance. But in the back of my mind, I also didn't want her pulling down the team (not that she would have ever made the team in the first place. I may sound unsupportive, but I can assure you that we supported everything Lindsey really wanted to do in life). We ultimately found other ways for her to get to play basketball. Some parents of children with special needs say they don't want their kids to be treated differently. Until they do want them to be treated differently--i.e. accepted on a "regular" team. I guess I don't see anything wrong with learning to accept your limitations (if you have them--and just like typical people must do, i.e. at 5'5", as much as I'd love to be a swimsuit model for Sports Illustrated, it just isn't going to happen and I'm certainly not into starving myself to achieve that goal :-) ). I don't think a kid with special needs should be accepted on a regular team if the average player isn't also accepted to play on the regular team. Some kids make it and other's don't.

    Anyway, you always write thought-provoking blogs and I love reading them. Not sure if my comment makes a lot of sense--but I do love seeing these special events where someone gets to shine in the spotlight--but it also concerns me because it cannot be sustained.

  17. When it comes to enabling kids with disabilities to participate in sports or other programs for which they would not ordinarily qualify, I think the most important question for everyone to ask themselves is, "Do our plans here involve any sort of lying to or misleading this child?" If the message is something like: "We and you understand that you are not able to participate fully in this type of event ... but we like and respect you, and we'd like to recognize you by giving you a taste of what it's like to run a touchdown" ... then I'd be fine with it. My concern is that schools and students arrange these things without much consideration and critical thinking ... just warm fuzzies.

  18. This reply is a year late, but I have 2 great stories to tell. First, my daughter is a freshmen in high school. She plays percussion in the band. Oh, she also has Down Syndrome. They just finished marching band season. The percussion teacher wrote a part for her, playing the wind chimes. She did a great job at each performance. She was in the "pit", the percussion section down in front. She had a great time! She made many friends and gained a lot of confidence. Her part was not essential to the program, but she was totally included and felt like she was one of the band members.

    Second, she has played soccer on a regular rec league team. Over the years the coaches have made various accommodations for her, like she was an extra player on the field, frequent breaks as needed, etc. It has been a great experience! She has made many friends. Kids have not seemed to mind having her on their team. I still have kids come up and say they remember playing with her in grade school.

    At the end of one game several years ago the referee called a penalty and indicated she would get a penalty kick. We were really confused about what was happening. The players all lined up. The other team substituted the goalie; the girl who went in is a good friend of ours. My daughter kicked the ball, the goalie missed, and she got a goal. Only later did we realize it was a "set up" between the coaches, the ref, and the goalie, so that our daughter could make a goal. People still talk about it, especially my daughter. That day she was a champion. She does not expect that to happen again, but has a great memory.


Thanks for sharing!