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Student With Down Syndrome Left Out of Yearbook Cheerleading Photo

Morgyn Arnold, a teenage girl with Down syndrome, was the manager for the Shoreline Junior High cheer squad in Layton, Utah. When the school yearbook recently came out, Morgyn was not in the squad picture, and her name was not even mentioned. The team took two photos, one with and one without Morgyn. The one without her was used for the yearbook.

Media accounts from her father and sister state Morgyn was sad to be left out. She considers the girls on the squad her friends. She enjoyed learning routines and participating in activities to promote school spirit. The Davis School District apologized in a statement. The girls on the squad rallied around Morgyn. Her family has been gracious, asking this to be a teaching moment and hoping to impact future change.

I saw this story on June 15 on David M. Perry’s Twitter feed. Mr. Perry is a journalist, historian, and the proud father of a son with Down syndrome and autism. I in turn shared it on my Twitter and Facebook pages.

Children with significant disabilities being left out of school activities, events, and yearbooks is sadly a more common occurrence than most realize. Parents like me know this. I have a daughter with Down syndrome. David M. Perry, and my friends who are also parents of children with significant disabilities, were quick to point this out. (Mr. Perry wrote an opinion piece for CNN.) But people who do not “live in the disability world” often do not know this. And their responses showed me the world is changing — even if it is with baby steps.

Two school board members in my district responded with deep concern stating this was not right. Parents of some of my daughter’s friends, who do not have disabilities, responded with horror and support. People from my church, and other community activities responded hoping this will be a great teaching moment My daughter was always fully included in her schools. Her immediate community is aware of that and extremely supportive. But sadly, she is still a unicorn where I live, and in the U.S. Inclusion has not spread as it should have by 2021. “Educating Peter” was shown on HBO in 1992 — almost 30 years ago. Properly supported inclusion is not a new concept. It will take all our school leaders, community, and our youth to change the script.

Which script? The script that forgets about people with disabilities over, and over, and over. Most of the time it is not malicious or intentional — it just happens. School boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, coaches and students do this every single day. In 2021 we still have students with disabilities using a different door to enter their school building in some cases. In 2021 we still have too many students with disabilities in self-contained classes in a different hall, wing or building. In 2021 we still have some schools hosting separate “special needs” proms, and kind-hearted communities doing the same thing. In many ways, too many of our youth are invisible, or treated as “volunteer projects.”

Until people with significant disabilities are truly welcomed, integrated, and properly supported in all our schools, churches, communities, and places of employment, progress will be slower than it needs to be. It is hard to be remembered when you are segregated. History has proven that separate is not equal. This is why our youth are so important, because if they grow up knowing natural inclusion for all as the norm, it will become embedded as they grow into their careers and adulthood.

The fact that children with significant disabilities are often “managers” of their teams has been part of the overall discussion about this cheerleading story. In some cases that is what the student, with or without a disability, really wants and is happy with.  I also know there are students with significant disabilities who are integral players on their team. My daughter’s friend Caden Cox was the kicker for his high school varsity team and now plays for his community college team. He has Down syndrome. We need more Cadens.

Many years ago, A & E’s “Born This Way” star Sean McElwee was the manager for his high school baseball team. He loved being the manager and the sense of belonging it gave him in school. However, he was not allowed to go on the bus to away games, among other things. And then the coach did not want Sean to come back the next year as manager.

Guess what happened? Sean’s teammates spoke up loudly. They wanted Sean to be the manager and made their wishes loud and clear. They advocated for him. They were his allies. Sean came back as manager. Happily. And I am guessing his teammates grew up to be kinder, more welcoming members of society.

You may be thinking, “But Morgyn is being supported by her squad.” Yes, she is, and I do not know the details of her schooling. But someone, or some people, somewhere in the chain of this story dropped the ball and made the decision to take two photos for whatever reason. They then decided which one to use. Even if that was just plain ignorance, it most likely came from a lens of seeing people with disabilities as “other” — or not seeing them at all.  That is what needs to be examined to impact future change. It is no small task. But we must start collectively.

My favorite response to the posting of this story on Twitter was by a woman named Gina. She stated, “Joke’s on them. They’d have had better ‘publicity’ if they had left Morgyn in the photo. Diversity is IN!”  She is right! Everyone needs to remember that diversity also includes disability. Let’s all expand our lenses so “forgetting” and “not seeing” our fellow neighbors become ancient history.