In the special needs community we often celebrate and highlight moments of inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities.  We cheer movies or TV shows that are “brave” enough to employ an actor with intellectual disability in a starring role.  We share newspaper articles or videos that highlight when a student with Down syndrome is named Homecoming King or Queen, or scores a touchdown in a high school football game.

There is good reason for us to do all these things.  It makes the individual with special needs feel good.  It makes us feel good.  It’s fun to celebrate the accomplishments of those for which the opportunity to achieve was, and still too often is, limited by a variety of misperceptions, misunderstandings, or other obstacles.

Most often we celebrate these occurrences in the name of inclusion.  For the most part, these sorts of happenings are, or at least feel, inclusive.  Perhaps by definition they are inclusive when you consider that a person who was once not welcome in a certain societal realm now has the opportunity to be celebrated within that realm.

Yet too often I have to admit I find myself feeling as though we improperly define and celebrate inclusion.  Let me be clear, all those sorts of accomplishments I referenced are worth celebrating and recognizing.  But let me ask you, which headline sounds more “inclusive”:

“Down Syndrome Player Scores Touchdown”


“Joe Smith Scores Touchdown”

The first headline, is a real headline from a major news outlet. The second, I just put in a fake name.

My hypothesis is that in order for true inclusion to exist, it must be invisible.  If an event or an accomplishment is newsworthy because of a medical condition or otherwise outlying factor, it should not be celebrated as inclusion.  It can be celebrated in other ways – perseverance for the athlete who trained so hard for years to be able to run and score a touchdown, or for the opportunity two schools provided to help an individual reach their goal.

What got me thinking about all of this was a handful of pictures that came my way from this year’s annual White House Easter Egg Roll.

Turns out one of the hundreds of young people participating in the roll on the White House lawn, a very highly coveted ticket, was Katelyn Herman.  Katelyn is a 10 year-old Special Olympics athlete in Virginia.  To date, her father Mike says she has enjoyed participating in bowling with their local program in Charlottesville.  So much so that her last two birthday parties were bowling parties.  He told me via email that he thinks she’ll soon expand her involvement to other sports because of the sheer joy and sense of accomplishment she feels when competing.

What struck me about seeing the pictures of Katelyn at the Easter Egg Roll was that I did not recall one story, one headline, one press release or any other sort of mention along the lines of:

“Down Syndrome Girl Participates in White House Easter Egg Roll”

The only thing that sticks in my head when I look at the pictures below is what Katelyn’s father Mike shared with me:

“She loved everything about it and everyone there treated her just like the other kids, which is very important to Katelyn because, despite her disability, she really is a very normal 10 year-old.”

That my friends, is true inclusion.

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17 thoughts on “True Inclusion is Invisible

  1. KK is a very special child to me and my wife.We call her the Energized bunny because she never stops.WE love her very much Pappy and Nay.

  2. Pingback: Sun-Beams: April 22, 2012

  3. I’m fortunate to be able to spend time with Mike, and occasionly Katelyn. They are both truly wonderful companions, with personalities that often make them more adaptable to any of life’s challenges than many of the rest of us. Thanks Katelyn, Mike, and Ryan for your contributions to our lives – If we are not inclusive, then we are those who are challenged! Life needn’t be so exhausting.

  4. Interesting insights but I find there is irony in the message when the special olympics (moreso the name than activities) seems to convey the opposite of inclusion. I believe the time has come for special olympics to consider a name change, something more empowering, more about self-advocacy and choice & less “special”.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Gina. I understand what you are saying. I don’t anticipate a name change any time soon, but I can promise you what we will do is continue messaging empowerment, self-advocacy and doing what we can to change perceptions and attitudes about people with ID for the better around the world.

      • Cheers Ryan. Just keep in mind you won’t get one without the other. True inclusion won’t ever happen with segregated options on offer… there will always be the mentality of ‘isn’t there special places/things/events for “those people”? Keep pushing for growth & change I am sure even Mrs Shriver wouldn’t be a fan of things stagnating at ‘almost’.

  5. Ryan,
    We were as inspired by your article, “True Inclusion Is Invisible,” as we are by our daily exposure to Katelyn. May we please have permission to feature your narrative and your photos on our school division web site? We will provide all appropriate attributions and we certainly will work closely with Katelyn’s family to ensure their approval. Thanks. – Bob Grimesey, Superintendent, Orange County (Va.) Public Schools

  6. I don’t want to be invisable. i am proud to be autistic. and it good that people with idd can be in normal situcations. like i got to college. and i want it know that idd people can be in college. i don’t want to hid my condition but show it so others know that poeple like can be in the place i am.

    • Hi Laura, thanks for reading and commenting. You raise an extremely important point and it’s a distinction that is critical to make. I don’t think YOU should be invisible. What I’m suggesting is that when our society celebrates that an autistic person is going to college, we’re not truly inclusive. From my point of view, the fact that you have autism shouldn’t make it a big deal that you are going to college. It should be a big deal that you are going to college because you’ve worked hard, studied and reached your goal to go to college. That’s what people should see: Laura – the hard working student who earned her way to college. Not the autistic girl who is making good by going to college. Even then, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be proud of having autism if that is how you feel. I’m Hungarian, and I’m proud of that. But I don’t want to be celebrated for achieving a goal because I’m Hungarian. I want to celebrate reaching my goal because I worked hard for it.

      The second half of your point is one I struggled with when writing this post: how do I celebrate something in a blog post that I’m suggesting shouldn’t be celebrated? My feeling is that we are in a precarious time because awareness still has to be raised about the abilities of people with special needs, and that everyone has value to add to their community. So it is important to see people with IDD achieve their goals so others can see it is possible.

      I think moving forward that what we as a community want to strive for is that these accomplishments are recognized on their own merits, and not recognized because the person who accomplished something has a disability. The news headline should be about the person who scored the touchdown, not the condition that someone has who scored the touchdown.

      Thanks for giving me a chance to talk through that a little and congratulations on achieving your goal of going to college.

      • thank you for your reponds. i kinda seeing what you are saying. I know that their people that do not idenifiy with their conditions. the reason why i do idendify with it is because for a whole i did not know why i was the way i was. i was treated badly most of my childhood and teenagehood because i was considered one of the ” sped ed” kids my family tried to teach me that this was a shameful thing and that i should be ashamed of it. but i do not want to be a ashamed with it. when i am with other people like me i feel a sense of pride and unity. for example i am on the kititas valley special olympic swim team and i love it. i can truely be my self and have a sense of pride in the way i am different and “special” there i know it not shameful or bad. I tried of the idea that being IDD is shameful or bad it not it something that should be respected and honered. really i see i don’t see my self as person with autism no i am autistic and i am proud of it. really like how some one in african decent is bad to be african. and really i like the word special. I llldlike the word special better then IDD but eather is fine. i wear as a bagde of honer anyday and any day

  7. Awesome entry, Ryan. This is something that Best Buddies staff and participants are in line with. When social inclusion for people with IDD becomes truly invisible, our vision will become reality: to put ourselves out of business. We’re proud to be apart of this movement with you!

  8. Aww I love this article! I am totally visually impaired, so I know what it feels like being excluded from events and community life. I am so glad these awesome people are getting the support and recognition they truly deserve. Its time to see everyone as people, no matter how they look or what special needs they have.

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