Are Special Needs Dances Inclusive?

Hello! It’s Nikki from Creative Inclusion.

Think Inclusive asked me, as a parent of a child with Down syndrome, my thoughts about activities specifically designed for people with disabilities (like “special needs” dances or sporting tournaments like Special Olympics). Well, you don’t have to know me very long to know that I just love it when someone asks my opinion! So I am happy to share my perspective, which has changed since my son has gotten older and now is a teenager. Yikes! I also think it’s an important conversation to have when we are discussing inclusion.

A Valid Question

Do “special needs” dances and sporting activities promote exclusivity rather than inclusivity? That certainly is a valid question. What is inclusive about an organization or event that is only open to people with disabilities? I would argue that, of course, this is not an example of inclusion.

However, if you are wondering what these types of events offer individuals with disabilities, I encourage you to attend one. You might be harboring preconceived notions that are not accurate.

Special Olympics

When my son was younger, and we were still grappling with a diagnosis, I wanted him to be in every single activity just like his peers. I had high, idyllic standards for him. The problem with that was that it was my dream. It wasn’t his dream.

My opinion changed when we started our involvement in Special Olympics when he was eight years old. He began with track and field and swimming. He also participated in the community swim team. Both were great experiences, but they were also very different.

Different Isn’t Bad, but It Can Be Uncomfortable

In the community swim team, which was very supportive, they celebrated his participation. However, when he came in last, and the lifeguard had to go get him and help him finish, (not because he couldn’t swim, but because they needed to hurry up to start the next race) it almost put a magnifying glass on the “DIS” part of his ability. He was happy, but as the Mom, I felt the magnitude of how different our lives were. Being different isn’t bad, but it is sometimes uncomfortable.

In Special Olympics swim team, the lifeguards were already in place from the beginning. If he could make it across without help, fantastic, but if he couldn’t, then there was nothing different about him than anyone around him. (By the way, with swimming, he loves the pool, but he struggled with the concept of racing to be the first one out of the pool when the fun was when you were in the pool. I think that is totally understandable!)

Pride in Perseverance

A few years ago we started Special Olympics downhill skiing as well. We live in Kansas, so there is some travel involved in finding slopes to ski on. Every Sunday in January we drive an hour and a half to a little place in Missouri that has manufactured snow to practice. He was eleven when he started, and he had never before put skis on his feet. That was when he learned all about “perseverance” because Mom was not leaving that place without him giving it his full effort! We had a battle of wills for a while because I had committed to it and selfishly, I didn’t want to see him quit. There were some tears shed that year, but this year he brought home four gold medals and one bronze! He was on cloud 9! He was so proud of himself!

Back to my original statement about how my perspective has changed regarding special needs specific activities; Special Olympics evens the playing field for people with disabilities, and the whole environment is about celebrating each other. Contrary to what the general public believes about sports, it is encouraging, not competitive, even though medals are given out. It’s hard to describe, and if you’ve ever attended a Special Olympics event, you understand what I mean. Of course, everyone wants a medal, but at these matches, the whole thing is a celebration, not just the medals.

But games are different than dances, right? I mean, we want inclusive dances, not separate dances, right?

Special Needs Dances Are About Acceptance

Well, that year was the first year we experienced first-hand a special needs dance and my opinion on that changed. Every year as part of the kickoff to the skiing there is a big dance for all the athletes. My husband and I went with our son, Trenton, to see what this was all about. Let me preface this story with a little bit more information about our community. We are from a small town where when someone gets married the whole community goes to the wedding dance. It is a big to-do. However, I have no rhythm. It’s embarrassing. I usually prefer to have a glass of wine, or two maybe, before I get on the dance floor. I married a great dancer who is usually center stage and the life of the party, but I’m just not that confident. I love dancing, but I know I stand out like a sore thumb, in the opposite way that my husband does.

So anyway, there was no alcohol at this dance. I did not plan on dancing. If you know many people with Down syndrome, dancing is their jam. My son is no different. He can rock his air guitar to Bon Jovi like none other! Well, sitting isn’t an option at one of these dances. Wallflowers just aren’t allowed! So I got out there, and I did my thing, which was terrible. But guess what?!? No one cared! I was cheered on like I knew what I was doing. I told a young man with Down syndrome that I was a bad dancer. He was in his early 20s, and he had some very impressive moves! He said he’d teach me. He did some fancy footwork, and I tried, but I just couldn’t do it. He told me that was fine, just feel the music and go with it. So I did. I did that for several hours! My husband and I had more fun at that dance than we have ever had! Everyone was laughing, but not the laughing that sometimes happens when you get caught singing the words wrong or obviously having no rhythm. It was the laughing that only comes from pure joy.


Our Society Doesn’t Always Celebrate Diversity

When we left, my husband and I agreed that if everyone treated other people the way the “special needs” community treats people, no one would be embarrassed to be themselves. No one would feel insecure. It is the most welcoming and accepting community that I have ever had the pleasure to experience.

We participate in community and school sports as well as local and school dances, and we wouldn’t change that for the world. We are so grateful to live in a community that accepts our son the way he is. However, we still have an underlying culture that believes that accommodations to be successful make you different. Our society doesn’t always celebrate diversity.

We Hope for the Day We Don’t Need Special Needs Dances

Before writing this post, I talked to my husband about what his opinion was. We are in complete agreement that the day that the general public is as welcoming of all individuals the way the “special needs” community accepts everyone is the day we will no longer have a need for special needs specific activities. We both hope to live long enough to see that day happen, and we most certainly hope and pray that our son gets to experience it. We are grateful our daughters were born into such an experience as we feel it’s nothing but a blessing. However the truth is that we are a long way from that and until then, I think we should encourage special needs specific activities and practice living life the way they do, with kindness and acceptance, empowering everyone around us to be the best they can be.