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The Problem With That Viral Story of a Wrestler With Down Syndrome

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You’ve probably already read the currently trending article about Devin, a popular high school wrestler, letting Andy, a fellow high school student with Down syndrome, win a match against him. A variety of news organizations covered this story with clickbait-worthy titles and labeled this “act of kindness” as true sportsmanship.

Let me preface this piece by saying I do not blame the teen for trying to do something he thinks is nice and respectful. He seems like a really good guy. Like someone who wants Andy to feel good about himself. But what’s more concerning to me is that this story, like a ripple effect, negatively affects the non-disabled community. When we bring up issues with these types of stories, I believe it starts another worn-out conversation about how ungrateful we disabled are — how no matter what the non-disabled community does, it’s never enough. In this game, it feels like they are “letting” us participate and “bending the rules” to allow us in. It’s stories like these that contribute to their mistaken perceptions of us, and it’s stories like this which are detrimental to our equal participation in society.

I was mentioning to my husband the other night, “You know, situations like this never really ever have to happen.”

He asked, “What do you mean?”

I replied, “Situations where Andy doesn’t have any other opportunity to participate in competitive wrestling, or even any other combat sport — wrestling, karate, boxing — because it’s consistently [not] been an option.”

With the exception of Judo as a sport in Paralympics, it seems like there aren’t many opportunities for disabled athletes to compete in combat sports. It’s 2016 — we are past the sideshow days and being on display for the enjoyment of the gawking audience. Is there a fear that if there is a willing participant, there is a promoter ready to exploit them? There might be, but should that stop our community from being able to compete? There is a segment of our disabled population who want this opportunity, and there is a need for disabled individuals to participate on all levels. If Andy is participating in his high school with his peers, then shouldn’t he be able to participate in physical education and competitive sports equally, just like his peers?

I could compare Andy’s situation with my own journey in boxing. I remember quite vividly in the beginning, none of the trainers at the gym wanted to hold mitts for me. “Holding mitts” means that during the class, the coach would go around to all of the students, giving them an opportunity to do a punch combination on the mitts they held. In my situation several years back, every time the trainers would go around the class, they would stop right before getting to me and instruct the class to do a quick cardio break. Once the break was over, we went back to hitting the bags, and the coaches would resume going around the class with the mitts, carefully bypassing me. After about a year of this, they started to respect my participation in class and would include me, but there was always a caveat.

“Midget boxing” is a joke, and it’s embarrassing as someone who spends hours honing her craft and polishing her technique to match another boxer at my gym as a sport, not a sideshow. But because I don’t look like everyone else, and I look like one of those dwarfs being exploited for cash and laughter, there is a distance between my participation in boxing and the others. A sort of “safe space” where I can join in on the sport but still not be treated as an equal competitor. I’m treated as “special.”

I believe this is an almost identical scenario that Andy is in. He is “allowed” to participate but not compete on an equal level. What is a 16-year-old high school student like Andy, mainstreamed into the school system, to do if he wants to participate with his peers at school in every area?

And since I don’t want this to be just a complaint, I want to offer a solution. I think the first step to fixing this issue is getting more participants. What I want, and others who are skilled in combat sports, is for the adults in the disabled community to start participating. I want the parents of disabled youth to encourage your children participate in any sport they want. And I want full support of organizations like the Special Olympics so that better opportunities will happen for athletes like Andy.  Because with better opportunities, brings more competition. And with more competition, the more chances for someone like Andy to truly win a match.

Lead photo source: CNN video

Originally published: February 17, 2016
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