Speaking up for Michael

Jason Smith


Have you ever heard something that just bugged you, and you couldn’t rest until you spoke up about it even if it didn’t change anything?

That’s pretty much where I am right now.

A couple weeks ago, I was looking at various news items online from around the country, when one of them caught my eye. It was an Associated Press story about a student at a high school in Wichita, Kan., named Michael Kelley. He has Down Syndrome and autism, and plays extracurricular special-needs basketball. His mother had gotten him a varsity jacket and a letter to go on it, which the boy recently wore to school.

Michael was told by his principal that he had to remove the jacket because he’s not actually on the varsity team. Apparently, special-needs teams aren’t sponsored by the school itself. There’s been quite a bit of backlash from parents and supporters of Michael, but the principal has stood his ground thus far, with the backing of other officials in the school district.

There are a few problems I see with this whole scenario.

For one thing, the jacket and letter were gifts from Michael’s mother, yet he was told he couldn’t wear them.

I understand that letterman jackets are designed to honor traditional student athletes for their accomplishments in school-sanctioned sports activities, as well they should be. They put in a lot of hours to hone their skills while juggling sports and academics at the same time. That’s not easy, and I don’t mean to minimize that for a second.

Michael’s mother, from what I’ve seen, was attempting to recognize the achievements of her son. She was instead told by a principal, in effect, that she couldn’t because her son is different.

In the last several years, I’ve gotten to know quite a few people in the special-needs community in Henry County. I’ve been fortunate to witness athletes with disabilities – both teenagers and adults -- overcoming various obstacles to reach heights I could only dream of attaining.

They don’t do it for scholarships, for money, for endorsement deals, or for anything other than the love of playing. Certainly, some of them go on to win awards at area competitions, or medals in the Special Olympics. But regardless, their accomplishments should be respected just as much as those of able-bodied athletes, if not more so.

Michael Kelley’s mother did that. To me, his principal didn’t. To me, the principal’s actions send a message that says athletes with special needs are somehow lesser than their “regular” counterparts. That may not have been what was intended, but that’s the result Michael is left with.

I get that it may not be financially feasible for every school out there to get a letterman jacket for every athlete with a disability. But the way I see it is, an educator’s primary responsibility is to teach students. When a special-needs athlete is told he can’t wear something his mom made him because he’s not like other kids, what exactly is he learning?

I realize that there’s only so much I can do, from here, to make Michael’s plight better. So what’s the solution? What can be done to rectify this going forward?

The short answer is to let Michael wear the jacket. His mother got it for him.

The longer answer, for Michael and for other athletes with special needs, is to do more to encourage what they do, and to support parents in that task as well. Whether that means volunteering, making a donation, showing up to cheer athletes along in competitions or writing a column about a kid in Kansas, we can all do something to help.

It takes work, and it takes time, but it’s worth the effort.

Jason has worked in newspapers since 2005, spending the majority of that time in Henry County. He lives in Covington with his wife and daughter.