Thursday, March 28, 2013

United We Play

jo ann cropRecently I blogged about one of those heartwarming stories where an individual with a disability gets a moment “in the sun” to switch from team manager and play the final seconds in a basketball game or catch a pass in a football game.

I acknowledged the “feel good” nature of the story and the joy and happiness it brings to the individual, their family and to the community. I also questioned whether it was actually helping us achieve a truly inclusive society that values everyone.

What I probably should have said is that we need examples of real opportunities and not “tokens”. Tokenism does not move us forward. Fortunately, I did not have to wait long to see real opportunities.

Two weeks ago, in Worcester, Massachusetts and other locations in central and western Massachusetts, almost a thousand athletes competed in the Winter Games of Special Olympics Massachusetts. I was among the proud spectators who watched almost a dozen Unified basketball games.

Unified we pass and shoot

Unified Sports actually began in Massachusetts and is now part of every single Special Olympic sport throughout the world. Unified Sports is dedicated to promoting inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences. Unified Sports are joint teams of people with and without intellectual disabilities. It was inspired by a simple principle: training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding. It has been my experience that it also leads to developing a social network which can result in job leads and employment opportunities.

In Unified Sports, teams consist of people of similar age and ability, which makes practices more fun and games more challenging and exciting for all. I was particularly drawn to my son’s team, LIFE Force, and I watched them play with heart, dedication, determination and skill. They were well coached, trained and disciplined.

They came in fourth, missing the medal round after posting a 1-3 record. Each of their losses was decided by a basket. The play was physical- there were elbows, blocking and a player even took a fist to the face. It was a real basketball game and it was well refereed.

Their lone win, the last game played, came after an emotional pep talk by their coach to the team to remind them that they were playing for Chris, a team member who had recently died after a short bout with cancer.

There were hundreds of “feel good” moments for me and among them was the selfless passing of our son, Jon, the points he scored but nothing greater than the grace he displayed in losing. Of not being on the medal stand and telling me that while he wished they had won, he made “many new friends this season.”

Every time Jon sets foot on a basketball court, soccer field or a golf course, he enjoys “days in the sun” and they are more important than a moment.

This originally appeared on the blog, Zeh Lezah of the Ruderman Family Foundation.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Being All We Can Be

By Jo Ann Simons

Can you see both sides of a story or is that being wishy washy? I ask myself that each time the television brings us another story of a student with autism making a three pointer on his only appearance in a high school game or the kid with Down syndrome suiting up for a play on the varsity football team. Is it inclusion or exploitation? Is it something to celebrate or something to discourage?

No doubt the events bring positive exposure and feelings of great joy to the individual, the family and even their community.

I think it might actually set us back on the road to a society where diversity is valued and embraced.

In the fight for inclusion, we are asking for acceptance. We are asking to be given the same opportunities as others. So, why does this bother me so much?

We can’t all be athletes

Not everyone makes the varsity athletic teams. That is why junior varsity and club sports exist- for the enthusiast without the skills to compete at the highest level. Some of the most enthusiastic lovers of sport do not have athletic skills and there are still meaningful roles for them to fill- managers, coaches, trainers, announcers, statisticians, locker room attendants. Bob, our usher at Fenway Park loves baseball and the Red Sox more than the next guy but, that does not give him the opportunity to take batting practice with the team.

Likewise, my daughter, in spite of many years of playing field hockey, never made the varsity team nor was she given the opportunity to suit up for a play that was “set up” to make her feel good. Her softball coach suggested she might find another sport. Such is real life. In the era where everyone is a winner, she learned the truth. It might have been the most important life lesson she learned.

When Jon, my son with Down syndrome, announced at age 12 that he wanted to coach the Boston Celtics, I shared with him the truth-gently. I told him that most coaches were former NBA players and he was not going to be tall enough and even his father was not good enough to be an NBA player. However, if he wanted to be a coach, he could. We would find a team where he could help. We talked about helping out the “Biddy Basketball” team at the JCC. Later, Jon did help and he went on to manage his high school basketball team and today he helps out the local middle school team. And he plays Unified Basketball on a Special Olympics team.
I have no doubt that Jon would have been deliriously happy to have been able to suit up for just one minute of just one game for his high school team. And I know that he would still be talking about it today. I would have also been over the top with happiness with the joy it would have brought to Jon.

It would not have been a good lesson. The world he lives in successfully gives him opportunities to work in his dream environment-on a golf course. He gets to golf as much as he can. It does not give him the opportunity to be a golf pro.

Acceptance for Jon begins with Jon. He has accepted, after a long journey, that he has a disability. He knows he will never be able to some things. He doesn’t dwell on what he won’t be. We celebrate him and that includes his disability. If we try to take it away from him, in ways that are not real, we take away who he is.