To be honest, if my son with Down syndrome (Ds), was put into a basketball game and set up to make a goal, he would be elated. Visibly. Overly. Photo-op worthy. I would cringe inside.
But my other son without Ds would love the attention too, he would be elated. Visibly. Overly. Photo-op worthy. I would cringe inside.
Picture these two similar yet different scenarios ? Which video do you think would go viral?
I would cringe at the pity thrown to my disabled boy and cringe at the gloating of my non disabled boy. Both attitudes driven by a sports culture.
I shy away from viral videos like this one
I hate the programs where everyone gets a trophy regardless of how you played. In fact many list as part of the fee to cover the cost of a trophy.
I would rather just go and buy one at a garage sale quite honestly. But our culture is set up this way.
When everyone wins, no one does.
My son without Ds plays with a basketball program called Upward, sponsored by a church. The players just want to play basketball or their parents want them to play. It is less competitive than the regular programs offered in the sense that they play hard and want to win, but the goal is mainly to just have fun.
My son is the worst player on his team. Really. He isn't very athletic. Noticeably. He knows it and has talked about it and apologized for it even. The coach nips that talk. The culture is not about who is better than who, or vice versa. The coach sets up situations to allow him to participate, for the other kids to include him. They don't mind. This is the culture of this program. The whole season this is how it works. He has gotten better and so have the rest of the team. They understand teamwork and the mentality behind "everyone plays".
When everyone plays, everyone plays.
The coaches are all volunteers and every once in awhile you see a coach who doesn't quite understand the culture. He comes in and plays dirty. It is very interesting to see how this mentality quickly gets quelled. The majority wins. And when the overwhelming attitude is one of having fun, his attitude changes. Quite honestly THIS is the inspirational story I wish we had going viral.
They also have a special needs team. My son with Ds is not on this team, (he is too old and has medical situations currently that prevent him on any team), he would play on the regular team, like his brother. And that would be ok. The special needs team was set up at parents request. Kids on this team have physical limitations and use a chair but are either pushed or assisted. They are celebrated just as the other teams. Everyone plays and they are competitive and fun. Are they my favorite model of inclusion? No. Even within a beautiful model there is a difference. Thankfully, there have been no moments of "inspiration" from those less
Little League sign up is happening in our town. Both my boys played when it was T-ball. Then it got real. Then parents started planning a future career for their children that included baseball. It is the same with AYSO. So, where does a child go who isn't geared for the ultra competitive team? To the sofa or the bench?
If we had programs for the average or below average player, which BTW, most of us are, and the entire playing culture was more inclusive, all the time, would they be more successful? And, couldn't we have both? A team that competes for All State Champion and a couple of teams that just compete for fun?
Besides the Upward program for basketball, where is the program for the average or below average player? Where is the program for the really good kid who hates the stress of competition? There is none to my knowledge.
Are these Upward games competitive? Yes! They are so fun to watch and some of these kids are really, really good. I have had conversations with many of the parents and they lament about the ultra competitive environment of a "typical" sports program like their schools basketball team. Their kids are too stressed out playing in that environment. And this sweet little basketball program ends at 6th grade and only covers one sport. A dilemma.
Thus we have a viral video that circulates with an inspirational edit. We have a program set up to foster the heart warming attitude we have when we see the coach "let" the poor child with a disability play. We do feel our heart tug; there is no other place for him to go and play, just play. So for a few minutes of one game when the common goal is everyone plays, we feel good. It feels good, it feels right, wanting to win but not having to win. It feels right, when winning is fun but not the ultimate goal. It feels right, when the ultimate goal is to play and have fun. But that is not our culture. Our culture is to win, period. We can allow for a moment of feeling good but then it is back to the game of winning.
I believe we can have both. I believe we can get our feel good more often and it won't leave a bad taste in our mouth afterwards. It will just feel good because it is based in respect.
But for now what can we do?As a parent what are the choices? As a player what are the choices?
For people with Ds, there is Special Olympics and quite honestly this is situational. We tried out the swimming. The program put an 8 year old training alongside a 30 year old. No thank you!
For non disabled kids we have pickup games? Let me know where that happens.
So I guess it is inevitable we have these viral videos of the player who gets to play and the tears that flow and the debates. And we are left with......the same thing.
An attitude that doesn't change and a culture that supports it. Round and round, like the government we go, discussing,debating and never doing. And quietly in churches across the land of the free and home of the brave, small programs like Upward go unnoticed that personify the "everyone plays" model.
I just hope they grow and don't cave to the pressure of exclusion. I hope,they expand their model of everyone plays and raise the bar on including people with disabilities equally, respectfully in every aspect of the game.
When everyone is equal everyone is equal.
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