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Letter of the Law

IMG_5002Hey, folks! It’s time for another outrageous story of how easy it is to demean kids with disabilities. I really do think I could write a weekly column on nothing but the indignities visited upon our kids by the so-called civilized society around us. Perhaps I’ll do that. I could call it “The Weekly WTF”.

This week’s story revolves around a teenager in Wichita, Kansas named Michael Kelley. Michael loves basketball. Due to his Down syndrome, Michael doesn’t play on his school’s team at Wichita East High, but participates in an extra-curricular team for kids with disabilities. To reward him for his hard work and to encourage him, Michael’s mother purchased a Wichita East High School varsity jacket and an official letter.

You know where this is going, even if you haven’t read the story already. The parent of another child saw Michael in his jacket and wasn’t happy about it, presumedly because having a kid with Down syndrome wearing the official varsity jacket besmirches her own kid’s achievements merely by association. A complaint was made, and rather than politely inviting that parent to mind their own damn business, which would be the appropriate human response in my eyes, the school ordered Michael to remove the jacket and sent him home in a sweatshirt.

When the story began to blow up, the principal at Wichita East High, Ken Thiessen (whom I hope is busily Googling his name), was asked by journalists if there was any way the school could see fit to allowing special needs kids to celebrate their accomplishments by wearing varsity letter jackets. He fell back on school policy. (School policy, not district policy, it should be noted.) “We have considered it,” he said, “and our decision was no. We decided that it is not appropriate in our situation because it is not a varsity level competition.”

I’ve seen a great deal of discussion and commentary on this story, and so let me save some of you a little time here: I get that Michael Kelley did not earn a varsity jacket by playing varsity-level basketball at East High. I understand that the letter of the law, or at least the school’s policy, is being followed here. I know. Rules are rules.

Except, here’s the thing. I’m sure the fine people at Wichita East High School consider their campus to be an inclusive learning environment. So what opportunities do students with disabilities have to earn varsity letter jackets? (SPOILER: According to the principal, none.) Given that lack of balanced opportunity, what is the educational purpose of excluding kids with disabilities from celebrating their hard work and success? East High has its rules, and by excluding Michael and kids like him, they are simply following the policies that they have in place. But why? As educators, what is their reasoning?

As I’ve mentioned before, my own daughter participates in Miracle League soccer and baseball. Like every other kid out on that field, Schuyler works hard. They all work hard. They have to, they must work harder than their neurotypical peers, and they do so in a segregated, off-campus league because their schools don’t provide the opportunity to participate. They are separate from their peers, most of whom I imagine would love to have them. These kids are Others.

It is worth noting that as far as I can tell, the offended parties at Wichita East High are either parents or school officials. Michael’s peers don’t seem to have a problem with it. One classmate has even started a petition in support of Michael. It currently has over 48,000 supporters.

But adults can be funny about stuff like this, although not so much “ha ha” funny. There’s an attitude towards kids with disabilities that is more prevalent than I imagine most people realize. Kids like Michael, well, they just don’t belong with the rest, right? They don’t deserve the same sense of accomplishment for the hard work they do. Letter jackets and trophies and school accolades are for normal kids, the ones blessed not just with talent, but healthy bodies and clear minds, the kind of things parents can’t buy but simply pray for. Those other kids? Well, honestly, they’re just lucky they get to go to public schools at all, aren’t they?

Dignity isn’t a treat for the fortunate. It’s a basic human right, one that you get to put in your pocket the day you’re born. It’s not something you’re granted by the world. It can’t be given to you; it can only be taken away.

The neurotypical, nondisabled kids on the varsity team work hard to earn those letter jackets. Just imagine if they had to work as hard as kids like Michael and Schuyler do, not just in sports or band or whatever, but hard enough just to make their way through the world the way our kids with disabilities do. Imagine if their parents had to work that hard to carve out meaningful and satisfying lives for themselves and their families.

They might earn some compassion, and perhaps even just a touch of wisdom. Better than a jacket, by a mile.

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