11/04/2013 12:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Is It Bad to Give Kids and Teens With Disabilities Special Sports Treatment?

It's fall, which means glorious leaves, crisp nights, roasted pumpkin seeds and a steady stream of Google alerts about kids with special needs getting special football treatment.


Like this story about Noah VanVoreen, a high school senior in Wisconsin with Down syndrome and the Little Chute High School team's "waterboy." He finally got his chance to take the field; at the end of a recent game, they handed him the ball and let him score an "honorary" touchdown that didn't count toward the score. The crowd went wild. "I feel great!" Noah said. "I scored a touchdown. It was great." His parents were thrilled, too.

And this story about Preston Bryan, a 10-year-old in Tennessee with cerebral palsy who's a member of the Eagleville Junior football team but never plays. He asked to participate in a game. Again, both teams agreed to let him score a touchdown; all the players ran alongside as his father pushed his wheelchair down the field.

Then there's this story about Simon Roussel, manager of the Mandeville High School football team for the last 10 years who has Down syndrome. After eight years on the sideline, the news reports, the senior got to put a uniform on. Following the opening kickoff, he ran 80 yards for the touchdown. "It's a memory he'll always have," his mom said.

While football season brings a rush of these stories, they're happening with more frequency throughout the year, too. You've probably seen the viral video of Jason McElwain, a high school senior with autism who was manager of his school's basketball team; the coach let him into the last game, and he scored 20 points in three minutes. Or the wrestling match video that went viral in which a seventh grader intentionally lost to a schoolmate with cerebral palsy.

Last year, I wrote about an awesome kid with CP who got to score a touchdown on his school's football team. In the months that have followed, I keep seeing the stories crop up. While kids with special needs may have always gotten special passes here and there, social media seems to have made the phenomenon explode, giving kids, coaches and parents ideas.

As the parent of a child with disability, I read the stories and watch the videos and I'm happy for the kids and parents. But lately, I've had concerns.

What happens after the kid's moment in the spotlight is over? Preston Bryan told his mom he wanted to play every week, "for his fans." Has that happened?

What do these plays teach people about kids and teens with disabilities? The crowds may feel all fuzzy (these stories are often described as "heartwarming"), and the affection and exuberance other athletes show is real. Still, does this further reinforce the idea that kids with special needs are very different from other kids -- ones who can't be a usual part of the team? As parents of kids with special needs, we know they kick butt‚ but people who don't otherwise have a person with special needs in their lives may get the wrong impression.

At the heart of it, I'm concerned that people see these stories mostly as instances of goodwill and kindness, ways to make the lives of seemingly unfortunate kids just a little better and give them a moment of glory. It's like the scoreboard might as well be flashing "AWWWWW...." This is the opposite of what I wish for my son, Max, and other kids with special needs: For people to see their abilities and the ways they are like other kids. For people not to pity them. For people to include them... regularly so.

Are these sports scores one step forward for our kids' happiness, one step backward for disability awareness?

I'm not talking about spontaneous acts of team spirit and camaraderie, as happened when this boy with cerebral palsy ran at his school's Field Day. I'm talking about planned wins for kids with disabilities.

For perspective, I reached out to some people in the special needs field. "It is a challenge for us not to want to celebrate the positive aspects of these moments," acknowledges Andrea Cahn of Special Olympics. "Yet it's just not quite there yet when we strive for true equality and social inclusion between those with and without intellectual disabilities."

One answer is more programs that encourage inclusion both on and off the field: "There must be opportunities for young people to form friendships and relationships so we can go beyond 'doing the right thing' of helping another feel good for a brief moment in time," notes Cahn. She is Senior Director of Project Unify, a multi-faceted program that involves athletes with and without intellectual disabilities playing together as teammates, along with education and leadership initiatives.

Another idea is to more consistently involve kids with disabilities in other ways on teams -- true sportsmanship. In fact, some of the kids in these stories were already part of their team. "In high school athletics, the goal is to win the game," notes Katy Ness, Senior Vice President of Government Initiatives for Easter Seals and a longtime disability advocate. "The goal is also to understand that each member of the team has different strengths and that the power of the group is bigger than the power of one individual. Some individuals may have strengths in physical prowess. Others may master the strategy and provide the emotional glue that keeps a team together during good times and bad."

The ethical matter of whether these kids and teens have their moments in the spotlight and never play again is one school officials and coaches should be pondering, along with the bigger question of how to more organically include students with special needs in activities. Meanwhile, parents have to make decisions that are right for their kids. Me, I'm grateful for sports programs for kids with disabilities, like the Little League Challenger Division team Max has been on that's let him succeed on his terms.

I haven't had to contend with a child's desire to play on a "regular" team since Max is in a school for kids with special needs. But if he wanted to make a play with a football team or any team, I'd say yes, unhesitatingly. I'd help make it happen. Then I'd watch Max gleefully trot down a field as players ran alongside him, our family and a crowd cheering him on -- even as I wondered whether Team Special Needs might be losing points and what might happen once my son's big moment on the field had passed.

This post originally appeared on Love That Max. More posts to read from Ellen Seidman:

• I'm not a great parent just because I have a child with special needs
• Dippy perceptions of special needs: Get with 2013, people
• Let's talk about kids with special needs and special Disney treatment

Screen grab: YouTube/Fox News video

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