Something that's talked about a lot in special education circles is dignity of risk. Basically, that means that everyone must be allowed to make choices—good or bad—within safety limits of course. For example, a child with a full-time school aide one day decides to go to the cafeteria instead of going to class. Should the aide let him?
The correct answer is yes. The child needs to learn that there are good and bad decisions, and that our decisions all have consequences. Any other child would have been punished. The punishment for children with differing abilities should be no different. That’s dignity of risk.
A similar thought occurred to me recently as I watched a video that had gone viral. During the final game of the season, a Texas high school basketball player passed the ball to an intellectually challenged player on the opposing team. People were inspired by this act and left comments in support of both teams. No one seemed to see anything wrong with it—except nearly every disabled person I talked to.
I'm sure that player had good intentions. But that's not how the game works, and to completely abandon the structure of the game just so a disabled player can score smacks of ableism. The message I took away from the video was that the disabled player isn't a real player worthy of competition. If that athlete had passed the ball to a nondisabled member of the other team, he would have been a laughingstock. Why is it different when the receiver is disabled?
There were certainly alternatives. He could've treated the boy on the other team just like any other opposing athlete. He could've even taken it a step further and offered to teach the boy some basketball techniques after the game. That would've demonstrated a quiet respect. It wouldn't have been blaring from the headlines. It shouldn't be. Acceptance should not be noisy. It should happen naturally, without fanfare.
Kids with disabilities need to learn that sometimes they will lose. And there will be things they will not be able to do because of their particular abilities.
I understand that I will never be an Olympic figure skater, and that's OK. I know where my strengths lie. So maybe basketball isn't that kid's strength. I'm positive that he has other areas where he shines. And if that kid really wants to play basketball, don't just let him play on a team because he wants to. Teach him how to play. Have him practice until one day he might be good enough to play competitively. Treat him like a true member of the team.
People with disabilities, parents and professionals alike need to learn a new term that I'm inventing—dignity of loss. Just as you need to let people make their own mistakes, you also need to let them lose—or win—their own games. Let them earn their own victories. Success is so much sweeter when it's earned.
Liebowitz is a college student with several differing abilities majoring in special and elementary education in Pennsylvania.