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.