There was a news story this week about the challenges high schools have in working to include students with disabilities in extracurricular sports activities.
Oscar Pretorius put the issue of athletes with disabilities competing at the top levels of sports with their non-disabled peers when he won his right to compete in this past summer’s Olympics. At issue in the Pretorius case was whether his advance-design artificial legs gave him an unfair advantage. The governing body eventually said no it didn’t and allowed his participation. Pretorius made a respectable showing in the games but didn’t look as if he had any unfair edge by any means.
As more and more students with disabilities want to compete on their school teams, and can in many cases, education and other groups and organizations are working to catch up with demand and form some reasonable guidelines for how to move forward.
We’ll keep tabs of those efforts as they unfold and talk about them here and other Council venues. Essentially it is a good thing that the issue is on the map and that students with disabilities are doing more and being allowed to do more.
However, this and the question of higher education for students with cognitive disabilities raise some difficult questions about what inclusion really means and how should it be handled.
Everybody shouldn’t be able to do everything. At the same time, those who want a fair chance at reasonable and meaningful participation should get that chance.
The lines here are still very much in flux. As we move through these sometimes complex decisions I believe common sense and honesty are good tools to apply.
There are certain basic criteria that dictate the evaluation of certain levels of achievement. Even before I was injured permanently nearly forty years ago I couldn’t palm or dunk a basketball. I loved basketball. Played religiously throughout middle school and high school. In the gyms and playgrounds of the city though. Not the school team. Why not? Simple. I just wasn’t good enough. It was disappointing, sure. But it was one of the many things I learned through that period that I wasn’t going to be able to do. Not smart enough, fast enough, strong enough or rich enough. It’s one of life’s most important lessons. Everybody doesn’t have a right to do everything. There are going to be more things we can’t do than we can so we’d better get used to it. And if we lead people to believe it is, or should be, otherwise we’re doing them a disservice.
Denying people opportunities is not what I’m talking about here. It’s being honest with them and ourselves about what opportunities are really meaningful to open up.
I’m all for working for people to have opportunities to experience and participate in things they have long been denied. No doubt people with disabilities have been excluded from many opportunities they should have. Advocating to break down those barriers is at the core of what advocacy is all about.
But let’s be honest.
Not everyone is going to participate in the Olympics. Nurturing dreams is great. But don’t oversell it.
Getting a college degree has become an expectation. In too many cases a necessity. I think that’s unfortunate. It used to be that college was a path for some. Other paths were for others. Now with everybody expected to get some kind of college degree the achievement has lost too much ot it of its meaning and clout.
A degree loses something if it’s not defined by a more rigorous intellectual performance than everyone can achieve.
It is okay, and even essential, to have different paths and levels in life. What’s not okay is when we over value some and under value others.
A shared advocacy goal should be to promote high levels of respect for all levels of contribution. This way we are not falling into the trap of pushing people into unreasonable situations, with trumped up expectations; or of altering useful definitions and thereby diminishing outcomes for everyone.