Annual Track Meet for Students with Disabilities at Peninsula High School
Palos Verdes Peninsula High School

Just like me

Frankly, I’m a loser. I’m never going to be homecoming queen. Never going to have a chugging contest with my friends. I’m always going to be the tall, dorky kid with the thick-framed glasses. But I have it good. There has always been a special group of people who accept me for who I am. When I was in middle school, they were my sanctuary. My ticket to tranquility. Every morning before my classes, I would go to the special needs classroom, where I was always greeted with smiles and hugs. Where nobody called me fat. Nobody critiqued my attire. They were kind, which incontestably was a huge rarity amongst pre-pubescent tweens. But they weren’t praised for their kindness. Their open arms were castigated, mocked, ridiculed. Their eagerness to have social interactions sparked snarky comments, whispers, pompous laughs. They were derided for merely waving for saying “Hi.” People like to think the situation is better than it is- that students with disabilities are now treated much better than before. That’s a lie. I see it. See people make fun of a kid who can’t speak. See people making memes of him, mocking his attempts at trying to interact, posting god-awful comments about him on Facebook. While he does what? Smile? Committing the biggest atrocity of humankind. Why isn’t social interaction encouraged? Why is he ostracized for trying not to be ostracized?

Students with cognitive abilities are often denied the chance to even coexist. To inhabit the same locale. To attend the same classes. To participate in basic physical education. I’m here to change that. To give back to the same students whose relationships I have cherished and always will. They deserve some remuneration compensation for their compassion and willingness to step out of their comfort zone.

Many organizations have successfully implemented physical education for special needs children outside of school: The Special Olympics, Disabled Sports USA, Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (KEEN), just to name a few. However, there are few organizations that administer physical education within schools. Federal requirements, unlike that for a student without disabilities, only recommend that “some students [receive] disabilities instruction in physical education” [1]. Of course, some students are not able to participate in physical education due to physical disabilities; but to completely lack a structured federal requirement is not fair to these children who are already estranged from the rest of their classmates.

The lack of requirements for physical education most likely contributes to the astronomically high obesity rate of special needs children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children with disabilities are 38% more likely to be obese than children without these disabilities [2]. Childhood obesity in itself is a prevalent problem, but children with disabilities have a colossal problem on their hands: they don’t have mandated exercise programs in their schools. Physical activities aren’t even offered- they often can’t even participate in school sports teams or physical education. We’re doing nothing about it. The actual statistics regarding obesity among these children are startling: approximately 86 % of adolescents with Down Syndrome are overweight or obese while over two-thirds of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder are overweight or obese [3]. Basic physical education requirements implemented in public schools could potentially help these children to learn the importance of staying active and healthy, as well as learning that exercise can, believe it or not, be enjoyable. Oh Gosh, did I just say that?

It seems that the way in which these children are oppressed in public schools parallels the circumstances in which Martin Luther King Jr. fought against in the Civil Rights Movement: “separate but equal.” They don’t eat in the same areas, attend the same classes, participate in the same activities. Often, these children strive to have ordinary connections with people their own age, but to no avail. One student at Wichita East High School in Kansas was denied the right to wear his varsity Letterman jacket. In fact, the school refused to offer varsity letters to any special needs athletes [4]. These students are castigated for merely participating in typical social activities in school. The union of physical education and buddy programs within a school could kill two birds with one stone: combat the ever-impending problem of obesity as well as these children’s lack of exposure to social interactions with their classmates. The purpose of school is to help prepare children to function in the real world. Ostracizing these children-denying them the right to do the same activities as their classmates- does not, by any means, help achieve that goal.

How can we help? We can fight for the rights of these students. We can go to our local schools and try to implement buddy programs, athletic teams, and other activities in which students with disabilities are able to interact in normal situations. Now, before I go into the cheesy “it benefits you more than it does them” schpeel, I’m going to remind you of your oh-so horrific middle school life: A time when we were probably all, at some point scoffed at, derided, horrifically embarrassed. Multiply that by ten- that’s what these students feel. All it takes is time- oh yes, precious, beloved time -to grant these students the same right that every other student receives: the opportunity to thrive, to have fun, to be themselves. Who are we to stop them? After all, they are just like me.

[Footnotes]

[1] Melody Musgrove, Creating Equal Opportunities  for Children and Youth with Disabilities to Participate in Physical Education and Extracurricular Activities, United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Office of Special Education Programs, 2011,2-3.

[2] Holly Lebowitz Rossi, Study Examines Obesity Among Special Needs Children, Parents News Now, Meredith Corporation, November 3, 2011, 2.

 [3] Study Examines Obesity Among Special Needs Children, 3, Ibid.

[4] Kevin Kaduk, Special Needs Student Told He Can’t Wear Varsity letter Jacket, Yahoo Sports, March 27, 2015, 1.