My brother James was born seemingly healthy in 1971. Yet soon enough it became clear that his cry was distinct, his coordination was off, and his speech was delayed. “Saving it up,” my mother jokes. He met his growth markers, but they were slower to come and shallower to sustain. Confronted with school, his differences and challenges became more acute. But thankfully he had something too many today do not. He was born into a family that valued excellence and born in an era that did too.
My parents were uniquely positioned to champion James. My father was a highly respected teacher and football coach who’d turned a struggling program into a winning one. He knew many of James’s teachers personally and was undaunted by the labyrinthine avenues available to children with special needs. Alongside my mother, who has an unwavering belief in the dignity and possibilities within every human being, they created the very best environment they could for him to thrive.
Still, school was a gauntlet and kids could be merciless. Behind his cheery disposition and sunny smile, James was broken-hearted, even suicidal, until he found the Special Olympics. There he discovered a mighty confidence to withstand a world of hurt. And together with my parents’ boundless expectations and unflinching belief, he found his unique voice.
Today he is a Global Messenger for Special Olympics, speaking all across the country for them and for the Five P Minus Society, raising money and awareness for those with special needs. He’s run marathons and won an Emmy. And this summer we watched on national television while during the Special Olympics Opening Ceremony he stood calmly before a stadium of people and recited the Coach’s Oath, a dream he’s held for most of his life. In a family of achievers, he has out-achieved us all.
Yet today we find ourselves in a strange world. Young James, with his altered speech and tendency to be teased, might be the very student excused from his speech requirement to “reduce harm.” And my parents, knowing the great gift of great expectations and requesting simply that he meet them, might be shamed and accused of ableism. The pendulum hasn’t merely swung, it’s been wrenched. We’ve gone from a proving ground to a withering one. Now some would rather build an industry around fragility and call it kindness. They’d rather scold and demean and call it fairness.
But the ideology that leans into struggle and harm reduction instead of the bravery and resilience to overcome struggle betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of harm and a breathtaking bankruptcy of ideas. It’s not kindness to limit our exposure to challenges. On the contrary, it’s cruel because it’s often in those crucibles where we discover a kind of strength and ability we could scarcely imagine.
Perhaps it bears repeating that a challenge needn’t be a cudgel or a crutch but merely an opportunity for kids to do the thing they fear to do—maybe the very thing they need to do—and for the adults in their lives to believe that they can.