I came across this amazing headline online the other day:
“Down syndrome football player scores touchdown in Washington game.”
Wow! Was all I could think. That is truly news. I have to read that story and watch the video. But it wasn’t exactly what I thought.
It’s still lovely and amazing, but….for me it raised so many interesting questions, none of which I really have the answers for. You can, and should, read the whole story from Yahoo! Sports here.
It wasn’t a real touchdown. Players from the young man’s high school varsity team, as well as the opposing team, put on a show so he would feel like he had achieved a touchdown. The opposing players pretended to try and tackle him. Players from his school’s team ran beside him to ensure he got to the right place. It’s all so incredibly sweet and uplifting — you can see that his teammates genuinely feel proud of him and happy for him, and he himself is over the moon with excitement. So why did I feel let down?
The simple answer is that I was directed to the story by way of an article on Yahoo! News about an autistic high school track star, one of the top long-distance runners in the Ottowa region. Within that Yahoo! article was a sentence about how other athletes with developmental disabilities had recently risen to “inspire others with momentous touchdowns.” So I assumed that like the autistic athlete, these other athletes had achieved success on their own.
I was wrong, and I though I don’t appreciate the well-intentioned but misleading wording, I don’t mean this post to be a media critique. Something else about the young man’s experience on the football field caught my attention.
It seemed another example of what often bothers me about how the world views people with Down syndrome, like my son, who is 2. They are genuinely sympathetic, at least decent people are, and glad to assist and root for someone who has a disability that is usually obvious. But at the heart of that sympathy often lies a truth that is hard to take when you are on the other side: I should be nice to this person because he is weaker than me and by helping him I am truly doing a good deed. Much like a mother views her young child: precious but just about unable to function in the world without her.
People often get these puppy dog eyes when I talk about my son, like “Oh, how sweet; poor thing.” And I know they intend no harm. I mean, let’s face it, in a world as cruel as ours can be, these people are the good guys!!
But inside I’m saying “My son doesn’t need your sympathy! Your understanding, yes, your interest and curiosity, sure! But please don’t feel sorry for him, or me.” He has done things in his short time on earth that some people reach adulthood without doing. He rides horses. He can do a somersault. He has flown on a plane, more than once. He has been on a boat, on a subway, on amusement rides. He has been a lion for Halloween and roared at the sight of his costume. He has shown love for animals, bugs, babies and his sisters.
So when I hear a story like the one about that football player, my feelings get complicated. The primal parent in me feels slighted, and wants to think that my son will be different. That he will be able to achieve HIS goals without too many compromises. That somehow, we’ll find a way that he never has to rack up a pretend anything. If that means putting him in a few programs just for kids with special needs, so be it.
Then the journalist in me tries to analyze it objectively. For one thing, it should be noted that I know nothing about football, except that if played “for real,” it can be dangerous for children with Down syndrome because their ligaments are looser and neck muscles often weaker, and this can make spinal injuries more likely. But I do know that most parents of children with Down syndrome want their children to be part of inclusive environments, which means playing and learning alongside children of all types, especially typical children without special needs.
And this football experience was about as inclusive as it gets. The 17-year-old athlete with Down syndrome had attended all the junior-varsity team practices for three years, and was given the chance to make a run into the end zone at the close of each varsity practice. So he definitely trained for his moment in the sun.
This young man’s family probably could not have been more thrilled. Here was a kid who became enamored of football because his two older brothers played and he wanted to be like them. I have no idea if he knew that things were being modified so he could score a touchdown. Maybe he did, but was ecstatic anyway.
This story makes me realize that I am right in thinking hard about what inclusion really means. Is true inclusion achieving goals on a level playing field, meeting the same challenges as everyone else? Does it count if the child FEELS totally included but isn’t? Does it count if the child has to have everything tailored to him? What is my ultimate goal for my son — simple happiness or the traditional markers of success, like victory in a sport, a driver’s license, a college education? To borrow from the women’s movement, can’t he have it all?
Part of what bothers me about the football story is its presentation. I’m sure the sporting blog that published the piece had the best intentions, and indeed the fact that the editor cares enough to write good stories about athletes with disabilities is a great thing. But it’s that headline: “Scores Touchdown.” Maybe if it simply said “Realizes Dream,” I would have been content. (As a former headline writer myself, perhaps I am just being overly critical.) To me, though, proper use of language when talking about people with special needs makes the difference between sympathy and respect.
When you feel sympathy for someone, you are willing to airbrush the truth to make them feel better. When you have respect for someone, you trust that they can handle reality. Maybe you soften things a little, but you don’t pretend.
I have no idea what the future has in store. And I have no real idea what to think about fake touchdowns. When my son is a teenager, I would probably feel like the luckiest parent alive if my community would work together like these two football teams did to help my son realize a dream.
I do know that my son will always need caring, understanding people around him as he grows. This young football player is blessed to have that. Isn’t that enough?
I would love to know what you think, whether you be a parent, loved one or educator of someone with special needs, or just a curious reader. Please write and let me know. Leave a comment or email me at email@example.com.