Don’t Make Me a Mascot!

Four years ago, I was invited to join SEAP (Special Education Advisory Panel) for the Iowa Department of Education.  SEAP provides input for DE policy makers for all sorts of special ed issues.  It’s funny how seminal events in life often seem insignificant at the time.  When I got the invitation to join SEAP, I almost disregarded it.  I didn’t know much about special ed. I felt (and still do) that our school was doing a good job with Koan.  So, I just didn’t think I’d have much to contribute or gain by joining SEAP.  But, I reflected on it further and thought about all of my connections to special education (again I’m still no expert).  I was a special education student when I was in school.  In fact, that’s the main reason I became an educator, but that’s an entirely different story.  Jeri taught special ed for years.  And, of course, there was Koan.  So, I decided to join SEAP.  This one decision has had a number really interesting and positive ripples in my life both professionally and personally.

At one of the first meetings I attended, Karen Thompson, the executive director of Ask Resource Iowa,  was chairing the meeting. As she did with all of the meetings she ran at SEAP, she started us off with a really good video.   In this case, it was the video I’ve embedded above.  It’s well worth the four minute run time.  There are so many powerful and great messages that Megan shares.  But, there was one line that struck me like a thunderbolt, and I’ve thought about ever since.

Near the end of the video, Megan is giving advice to teachers.  She says, “Don’t make me your classroom mascot.”  Oh my goodness!  Such wisdom!  There’s a really fine and difficult balance that schools (or any social organization) need to walk when working with disabled people.  I’m often uncomfortable when I see a story on ESPN of a disabled child scoring a touchdown in a football game or making a shot in basketball game.  It’s the same thing I feel when our local news runs the story of the disabled kid who is elected homecoming Queen or King.  I’m probably a little too inherently suspicious of people’s motivations.  But, it sometimes feels exploitive.  Whenever I see a story like that in the media, I wonder how the disabled person was treated month before or after the newsworthy event.  If the child is truly included and valued for who they are (and not just because they are different), then these are wonderful gestures and very commendable.  But, it’s easy for me to imagine the other scenario where the disabled person is being used as the centerpiece at an event make everyone around them feel better about themselves — ie… like a mascot.

I do think this can be a really tough line for well-intentioned people to see.  I have to think about this continually with Koan. It’s not a “black or white” thing.  I am a strong believer and supporter of inclusion.  Koan thrives when he has the chance to be with other kids his age.  We need Koan to be as highly engaged and involved with his peers as possible.  It’s essential for him and good for everyone around him.  But, it’s not always easy or simple to make it happen in a meaningful way.  It takes thought to design an environment where these types of genuine interactions can take place.  Ever since I saw Megan’s video, I have used her  language in every IEP meeting or any venue where Koan will be integrated in with like-aged peers — “Involve him, but don’t make him a mascot.”

In our four years at Prairie Ridge, Koan’s school, I think they have done a masterful job managing inclusion.  Koan is continually and purposefully engaged with lots of adults and kids every day.  These are thoughtful, planned interactions.  I’m so appreciative of all the staff at Ridge for their efforts.  Koan loves to go to school and this is one of the main reasons why.  On a personal level, I thought about this question before I started this blog.  I’m doing my best to honor Koan with these stories and reflections.  I hope I’m not exploiting him.  My larger point is that like many things, true inclusion is not an event.  It’s a process that should happen continuously.

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