Access & Equality: Athletes with Disabilities are People Too!

In February of 2006 a student athlete with Autism from Rochester, Minnesota was given an opportunity to play basketball with […]

In February of 2006 a student athlete with Autism from Rochester, Minnesota was given an opportunity to play basketball with the varsity team of his high school at the end of the team’s last home game of the season. The student’s name is Jason Mcelwain. Jason has a passion for basketball and served as the team’s student manager for several years. Jason proceeded to score 20 points by making 6 three point shots in a row and a two point shot after missing his first two attempts. The team, fans, and community celebrated his accomplishments at the end of the game. His seeming unbelievable accomplishments on the surface made the national news for weeks. He was given tickets to our local professional basketball team’s home game (The Minnesota Timberwolves). He is being pursued by more than twenty-five movie companies to make a movie of his life, and the president of the United States took time to visit Jason.

As an advocate for persons with disabilities, I applaud Jason’s accomplishments, his coach’s willingness to include him and believe in his abilities, the athletic director for approval and thinking outside the box, his parents for advocating for his inclusion, his teammates for understanding, and the fans and community for acceptance. I am thrilled that people were able to communicate effectively to help Jason have one of his dreams come true. This event has shown many with disabilities that may have given up their dream, they can be included in mainstream sports or other activities. My hope is that others recognize the difference they can make in a person’s life through acceptance and understanding of the individual, not stereotyping and discriminating against someone based on their possible differences.

However, I am outraged at the “Circus” that the media and others have made of this one event. The media coverage made it seem that Jason was a “disabled child” that we should feel sorry for and pity his condition, and he was offered special treatment to be included in mainstream sports. Jason is a child with a “disability” that has learned to face his challenges head on and works to overcome and adapt to his disability.

In further research we have found that the basketball coach had previously arranged with the other coach of the team’s opponent for the last game to have Jason play near the end of the game. It has never been reported that Jason ran cross-country track and lettered for three years, ran on the track team and lettered for two years, serves on his school’s senior class council, and has a part-time job. Jason simply is a student like every other student that uses the “abilities” he has to do the best he can with the talents he has. The question arises that if Jason did not have Autism, would this have been a national news event? If Jason had been an able-bodied student manager would the coach have given him the same opportunity? If Jason did not live in a predominantly European American community, and attend a predominantly European American high school would this event be deserving of a visit from the president of the United States of America? Athletes and students of all ages, cultures, and “abilities” exceed expectations on a daily basis, but are not making the national news.

In our rich world today, we continue to live in separate communities. It is great that Jason’s family, friends, school, and community can celebrate Jason’s accomplishments, and that Jason could receive the attention he earned. It is apparent that Jason, his basketball coach, other coaches, teachers, and family have been able to successfully advocate for Jason’s inclusion in mainstream sports and other activities. We have laws that are in place to level the field at all levels, but it takes people to apply the laws and treat others with the human kindness, respect, and honor that we all deserve. It is blatantly apparent to me that the European American culture uses the laws, systems, and human kindness to be inclusive. The African American and other minority cultures for many reasons do not apply and use the laws and systems established to level the field and assist with inclusion to our every lives. In my culture, it has much to do with the oppression of slavery; being self reliant; family oriented; and neighborhood minded. When I grew up I had a strong family structure and community base. Both of my parents lived in our home. In my culture the basic woman’s role in the family unit was to nurture and protect. The male role was to provide as well as protect. Today with the family unit more times than not being single parent households, the woman’s role is expanded, and the male is non-existent. Nurturing and protecting takes center stage, therefore advocacy, trust of systems, learning and applying laws outside of basic civil rights and humankind are not a priority. The systems that have been set up to help have in many cases been a hindrance. One reason is the people working within the system do not resemble me. Many of them may have a disability, but not many if any are African American.

When anyone seeks assistance from any organization, it is easier to believe that organization has this person’s best interest at heart if the organization has people that resemble them in the organization. These people need to be able to be seen and available to communicate with if needed. In most disability organizations that I have visited, the entire staff that could be seen upon entering was European American. At times I have felt odd, but understanding these situations did not affect me in a negative way. Bear in mind that someone with a different outlook may have been negatively affected by this and not applied the tools of the organization to their advantage. Trust is one of the huge issues when applying laws and using systems to level the field when persons have disabilities and are persons of color.

In most cases when a disability concern has been placed on center stage by the media, the person affected has been European American. The media seems to spin or focus on what they consider the pity part of the concern or the seeming extraordinary aspect of the event. As a person with a disability, I do not want pity, nor do I consider the things I do on a daily basis and have been doing for forty-seven years just as others with disabilities have to be extraordinary. People with disabilities are people too. Others may consider our every day accomplishments as extraordinary events, but our lives are just as ordinary on a daily basis as theirs is. The one thing to remember is: We all have “abilities” that should be recognized, honored, and celebrated everyday.