Erin Kelly examines principal Ken Thiessen’s recent decision to single out a student athlete because of his disability.
Doubt is natural. It’s one of the many human qualities that’s born within the soul and blossoms in the light of the outside world. It’s bred by the things we see, hear, think and feel—and what we’ve done to others as well as what’s been done to us. Some might even say that doubt is a product of insecurity.
If one is to make that observation with certainty, however, what does that say about the state of humanity? What about the age old idea of, “You have to see to believe”? Moreover, is the person who’s doubting their surroundings really questioning the morals and actions of others—or are they questioning their own judgment?
There are countless scenarios in which these questions present themselves. In fact, it’s not outlandish to say that the world itself is one big question. It’s even legitimate to say that we don’t always have the answers—and sometimes those answers aren’t clean cut when we do have them. Somewhere beneath all that, however, one constant observation remains: Seeing with the eyes doesn’t always equal true belief.
It often takes time for something of that nature to shine through. You just have to trust that it’s there—or getting ready to show itself, even if it’s not in plain sight at a given moment. This is especially true when you’re talking about human qualities and traits of disabled individuals, as this recent article from USA Today Sports alludes to.
According to the March 27 report, Michael Kelly—a student who plays on the special needs basketball team at Wichita East High School—was forced to remove his letter jacket during school hours. He was forced to do so, not because he caused trouble or misrepresented the school. It was simply because he has Downs’ syndrome.
Ken Thiessen, principal at Witchita East High, reportedly made this decision because he felt Kelly is not a vital part of the team.
Thiessen went on record as saying he wouldn’t allow special needs teams to have school letters embroidered on their jackets, and that the school “decided it is not appropriate in [this] situation because it is not a varsity level of competition.”
The article goes on to say that Thiessen noticed complaints from teachers about disabled students wearing these jackets. Another article from The KSN Report, however, stated that there is no policy at Witchita East High against giving the jackets to the students—or letting them wear them. Moreover, the athletic director at the school reported that this wasn’t an issue when Thiessen first started working there.
It’s also worth noting that neither report mentioned how long this has been going on, nor how long Thiessen has served as principal. In fact, when this news of this story first broke on a Yahoo Sports affiliate last month, few people knew who Michael Kelly was.
When I first let this story sink in enough to write about it, I was perplexed. I was perplexed by the reasoning and motivation behind doing something like this. I wasn’t so surprised by the fact that things like this still happen in American society, as well as societies around the world.
That got me thinking: What about the emotional aspects of this story? More importantly, what about Michael’s emotions?
Here’s a boy—a student—who’s doing something seemingly harmless by wearing a jacket that his mother bought him to wear to school, sources say. None of the articles I’ve read about this indicate that he was doing what he was doing just to be rebellious or to act out. In addition, none of them even mentioned how he reacted or how he felt about the situation.
I think Michael simply wanted to be accepted at as a regular student athlete, just like the rest of his team mates. Beyond that, I think he was trying to show support for his team and his school—the same way any student athlete would. This all leaves a few lingering questions: What was Ken Thiessen’s real motivation behind this decision? Better yet, who or what was he really doubting? Finally, what statement does this make—if any—about people who are in a position of power?
The feeling of acceptance and belonging may seem like a small, microscopic thing—but for someone with a disability, that’s huge. From personal experience, knowing that people accept you and see something other than your disability is more validating than anything else in the world. It’s a feeling I chase after and strive for everyday, but I’m also aware it’s a feeling that can easily be ripped away from you after you’ve worked so hard to gain it.
That sense of personal satisfaction is a crown jewel—and you feel cheated, naked and exposed when it’s taken from you. I felt like my cerebral palsy was the only thing anyone saw or cared about when this first happened to me. I still feel that way at times. However, it was more than just my own small observation that gave me pause while reading about Michael’s situation.
It was the fact that the disabled community as a whole—whether it’s here in the US or globally—has been dealing with instances like his for what seems like an eternity. Part of me would be a fool not to acknowledge that I account for a very small percentage of that community. Another part of me feels as if I don’t deserve to be called a writer—nor a journalist—if I’m not willing to at least shed some light on the issues surrounding Michael’s story.
Not only that, but these are instances that are right on the cusp of being juvenile—and even childish. They shouldn’t still be making headlines just because they come across a news reporter’s desk. They instead should be making headlines because of their rightful and much needed place within the social justice system.
It’s 2015, and the world is still talking about—and dealing with issues like these. That fact alone should bother people. If it doesn’t, the world isn’t the problem. It’s us.
The real issue buried underneath all this is that Michael Kelly’s story wouldn’t even be an issue if the value of equality and compassion came into play. I think the same can be said for most of the problems surrounding humanity today.
If we can clear out the bias, blaming—and most importantly, doubt—maybe we can see that it’s not about bare-knuckle politics, society or social justice. It’s simply a matter of kindness.
Photo Credit: Michael Kelly/AP