Wednesday, March 15, 2006

What's Wrong with this Story?

By now, everyone who watches news or sports has seen the video: high-functioning autistic boy outperforms on the high school basketball court.

They sent in this kid, Jason McElwain, for the last four minutes of the season, probably to give him a happy memory, and he scored 20 points, breaking school records and setting off much celebration. Cool – but this thing has now taken on a life of its own and either I’m a heartless beast who doesn’t get it, or it’s being overblown to such a degree that it’s a bit of an insult to people with disabilities.

In the couple of weeks or so since that game, the story has yet to fade – on the contrary, it is still gathering steam: now corporations are vying for the rights to this story, with contenders said to include Magic Johnson and Oprah Winfrey for crying out loud.

And the kid isn’t even African-American.

Today, the networks aired film of Jason meeting with the President of the United States, who claims to have wept when he saw the video.
Or maybe that was the video of his latest poll numbers, inspiring him to arrange this meeting for the positive publicity, of which he can surely use some.

So what started out as a nice feel-good story is becoming a monstrosity and a mirror on society.

For starters – the kid can obviously play. So why wasn’t he better integrated into the team as a player, instead of being given a nominal title (“manager”) and a few pity minutes at the end of the season when his team had a substantial lead in that game? I already know the probable answer to that one – the competitive nature of even high school sports precludes such a risk.
Still, what does it say for the coach’s ability to spot talent, and for the school’s responsibility to its students – to the autistic one, to help him grow in any way he can, and to the others, to have the privilege to witness and be a part of it? How about the school’s responsibility to society? What’s more important, the school’s reputation in sports circles, or the impact it has on the community? (I know, don’t answer that.)

I’m also a little unnerved at the collective shock expressed at the fact that someone who is supposed to be handicapped – or is it “challenged” now – was actually able to function and even excel. People do this all the time, to a greater or lesser degree, to deafening indifference, and while it’s nice to see some appreciation, why don’t we spread it around a little more and recognize more of the “heroes” in our daily lives. You don’t need to have a diagnosable, visible disability to overcome challenges.

I’m especially saddened by a quote attributed to Jason’s mother, who is reported to have said,
"This is the first moment Jason has ever succeeded (and could be) proud of himself. I look at autism as the Berlin Wall, and he cracked it."
I really hope that was a misquote, or taken out of context, for if that mother really feels that her son has never succeeded in anything in his seventeen years before sinking a few baskets, then she needs more help than he does.

And has anyone considered how Jason must feel? If he’s enjoying the fuss, good, but if he isn’t, it’s time to call off the hounds. I’m reminded of the South Park episode where the school nurse, who had a visible disability (she was born with a dead fetus attached to her face – don’t ask!) caught the attention of the well-meaning townsfolk who rallied around her with parades and every sort of honour they could think up, all of which was devastatingly embarrassing to her, because all she wanted was to be treated as anyone else and be left to do her job which she was very good at.

The fact that this is SUCH a big deal reflects society’s abysmal view of the potential of handicapped people. A happy news story, sure – we can all use some of that. But it’s like telling an overweight person how great they look now that they lost twenty pounds: all it really says is how awful they looked before.

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