Updated: Sep 8, 2021
My son loves baseball. He eats, sleeps, and breathes it. When he’s on the field he’s no different than his peers. He’s just a 7 year old who loves the game.
Off the field, his story is different. Connor was born deaf. His newborn hearing screening and subsequent follow-up testing revealed a profound loss in his left ear, with a moderate/severe loss in his right ear. At the time of his diagnosis we didn’t know what the future would look like for him. Would he be able to talk? Would he be able to communicate? Would he make friends easily? Would people accept him? What will his life be like?
He received his first pair of hearing aids at 7 weeks old and went on to receive a cochlear implant in his left ear when he was 16 months. While hearing has been something he’s always had to work hard at, it became apparent at an early age that what he lacked in hearing he made up for in hand-eye coordination. And since an early age, he’s been a force to reckon with on the field. However, for Connor and many other kids with disabilities, participation in extracurricular activities doesn't always come easily. We’ve participated in a variety of organizations and had some wonderful coaches; those who would get down to eye-level before talking to him, or make sure to make hand gestures when giving him directions on the field. And we've had those who were less patient and understanding; coaches who yelled at him for "not hustling" to the field, when he simply didn't hear what position he was playing, or those who would scream at him for not following their directions to shift left or right in the field. If you've ever participated in extracurricular activities you know that all it takes is one negative experience at an early age to turn a child off from a sport or activity for a life-time, and the effects of that are damaging.
Studies have long shown the importance of participation in extracurricular activities for all kids. They boost self-confidence, teach new skills, enhance social skills, and often challenge their brains to think in different ways than typical classroom activities. But for kids with disabilities, the importance of participation is far greater. It’s no surprise that children with disabilities are more likely to face challenges in the classroom. These challenges, both social and academic, often have harmful effects on self-esteem and self-worth. Participating in activities outside of school gives children with disabilities the chance to feel successful and empowers them to be leaders instead of being left behind. But as previously mentioned, participation in these extracurriculars often comes with challenges; challenges that can be mitigated with the right amount of support and understanding. But where does this support come from?
In order to create an inclusive environment, coaches and leaders need to be aware of disabilities that may affect the participants in front of them so they can understand the supports needed to positively and successfully lead these children. The child who keeps playing with the grass and dirt in the field or is distracted by every car that passes by or bird that flies overhead may actually have ADHD. The kid who won’t make eye-contact with you and seems uninterested may be dealing with anxiety. The child who gets upset when practice suddenly has a different routine or lacks structure may be autistic. Now I know what you’re probably thinking; isn’t it that parent’s responsibility to inform the coach/leaders of their child’s disability and needs? The answer isn’t that simple.
Inside school, children with disabilities typically have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). These plans allow these children to receive the services, accommodations, and modifications needed to succeed in the classroom. Many parents feel that with these plans comes a “label” that is placed on their children, and therefore shy away from discussing their disabilities outside of school because of the perceived stigma. For those who coach/lead younger children, they may also work with kids who have not yet been formally diagnosed, but exhibit behaviors that could use extra support.
Offering basic training in common childhood disabilities (ADHD, ASD, anxiety, SPD, etc.) would provide coaches and leaders the tools needed to meet all kids where they’re at. It would create the understanding needed to foster inclusive environments and ensure meaningful participation in extracurricular activities for those with disabilities. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of kids out there just like my 7 year old. Kids who don’t fit in within the four walls of the traditional classroom, but with a little extra support (and a lot of care and understanding) can thrive beyond those walls. We owe it to them to educate ourselves. When we know better, we do better.