By Tricia Luzadder
My daughter Anna – a 17 year old with Down syndrome – has been included in school since pre-K. Overall it has been a good experience for Anna both academically and socially. However, as the academic gap widened, the social invitations dried up and she transferred out of the safety of her nurturing elementary school into a big city high school, I sometimes wondered if inclusion was the right thing for her.
A few weeks ago I had a moment when it became clear that inclusion – challenges and all – was the right thing for Anna. It happened at a Chicago Public School (CPS) multi-school track and field meet. Anna is on the track team Lake View High School. Typically she very happily runs the last heat of the 50 meter event. She usually comes in last place, but always smiling and proud.
The day before the CPS multi-school meet, Anna’s coach informed me that she would be running her first 4×100 meter relay. Not only that, but she would be running “anchor”, a position normally reserved for the fastest runner in the foursome.
Anna didn’t suddenly become a faster sprinter, but her coach decided to give her the opportunity to run a different event. Coach Emily assured me that the team had been practicing with Anna and that she had mastered the baton exchange.
That was the least of my concerns. The nature of sports is competitive. Athletes want to win. Wouldn’t her teammates resent Anna if she dropped the baton and/or if she lost the race for them?
It’s one thing to come in last in the last heat. It’s another to weigh your team down.
As I, and I’m sure the coach and her teammates, guessed, Anna did indeed finish long after all of the other runners and Lake View placed last in the event. However, Anna came across the finish line all smiles. She was bursting with Wildcat pride and with the cheers and support of her teammates and coaches.
It’s impossible to know how the relay team would have done if Anna hadn’t run in the race. But Coach Emily and the team demonstrated amazing character by supporting Anna. It was heart-warming for a skeptical and nervous parent.
Watching Anna be encouraged and congratulated for her efforts by her teammates reassured me that inclusion is the right thing for Anna. In her case, she learns about the sport of running and what it means to be a teammate, while her classmates learn about tolerance and acceptance.
I couldn’t be more proud of Anna for her courage, her school spirit, and her belief in herself. I also couldn’t be more proud of the Lake View track coaches and team for their efforts in making the world a more inclusive place. It’s a small step toward a more tolerant and disability-aware world. But it’s a step in the right direction. Inclusion has challenges and it takes a tremendous amount of work for it to be successful. But when done right, it benefits everyone.