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.
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Top image: Twitter