My son Garrett was ready for high school thirty minutes early, so he sat in front of the television to watch an episode of “Blues Clues.” 

Patrick, my middle school child, sat in the kitchen, reading the newspaper and drinking his French Cappuccino.

I was perusing Facebook, making sure that I had not missed anything newsworthy overnight, like a funny cat video. Ouch. It was not a funny cat video.

The latest title from Ellen Seidman’s “Love That Max” blog caught my eye: “Let’s have special ed students do the football team’s laundry. Wait, what?!” Maybe this is not going where I think it is…

I read the first paragraph: “Sometimes, you read or hear about something done to a child with special needs and all you can think is, How is it possible anyone could think that’s OK?” Yeah. That’s where it’s going…

“Do you know if Mrs. Locke’s class still washes the basketball teams’ uniforms?” I asked Patrick.

“I guess so, why?” Patrick asked. When Garrett was a student in Mrs. Locke’s special ed classroom, he washed the boys and the girls basketball team uniforms….and I thought it was OK.

Ellen’s blog was a response to another mom’s story. Maybe it was Ellen’s opinion and no one would agree with her.

I glanced through her followers’ comments and words like “menial labor” and “subservient” were repeated. Thirty comments and only one mother defended the idea.

“I was just reading about other special needs moms who do not think it is appropriate for kids like Garrett to be washing the athletes’ uniforms,” I told Patrick.

“Isn’t that the kind of job he’s going to have someday? Besides, he loves to help people.”

“I think they are bothered by the fact that your class doesn’t have to wash the laundry.”

“Well, my class doesn’t get to go horseback riding!” It’s true. Patrick’s class does not leave the building to go to hippotherapy.

Patrick’s class does not have aides or a sensory corner. And Patrick’s class does not do the laundry for the basketball (or football!) team. Maybe it’s just me. Have other parents complained at our school?

I reached out to Katie Locke who still teaches the class Garrett attended in middle school. “I feel like a lot of what goes on in my classroom is because I have parent backing,” she said.

“My students enjoy and take pride in doing the laundry, as well as other life skills. My students probably learn more from me of these skills than the extended standards.”

Katie explained that the team brought the uniforms to the laundry room (in a basket!) after the games; and her students went there to wash and dry them.

“This also taught the students some independence,” she said. “The students loved leaving the classroom, even if it’s just down the hallway, to check on the laundry.”

I asked her about the argument that doing laundry was not teaching academic skills. “We were most definitely using math skills,” she responded.

“The boys’ coach liked the uniforms stacked in a certain order and then laid out by numbers. The girls’ coach wanted the uniforms hung in the locker, which required the students to match the uniform numbers to the correct locker. The class also washed the towels from the kitchen and would return them folded and ready to go.”

The year Garrett was in middle school, his class was recognized at the last basketball pep rally. The team presented the class with school t-shirts and thanked them for a job well done.

“I was not at all offended or embarrassed for them,” Garrett’s bus driver, Heather Fosnaugh, recalled that pep rally. “My heart was full because they were happy and proud of themselves for doing their part and being part of the team.”

Below is a photo of Garrett’s middle school class wearing their shirts. My son is holding the pan of brownies and he appears to be quite proud of his place in that classroom.

Students with special needs wearing class T.Shirts
Students with wearing class T.Shirts

I shared Ellen’s blog on Facebook. In it, she asked two questions:

1. “What message does it send to these kids that they’re cleaning their peers’ dirty clothes?”

Answer from Lisa Mariano, mother to a toddler son born with Smith-Magenis syndrome: “I think it totally depends on the kid. If it makes the kid happy and he feels good about himself, which I would think it would in most cases, then it’s great.

I suppose if there was a high functioning child, who perhaps wanted to but was unable to join as an athlete, it’s possible he could feel like it’s degrading.”

2. “What message does this send to the football team and the rest of the student body about them?”

Answer from Kristy Hamilton, mother to a teenage daughter born with Smith-Magenis Syndrome: “I know if my daughter was in charge of washing and preparing the uniforms, she would be over the moon.

It would also teach the typical peeps that special needs people are valuable and worthy. These typical peers are the future and are the potential business owners.

Who knows the seed this will plant in one of their heads? While Isabella is more like other kids than she is different, she is different.”

We live in a very small school district. It’s town where you go to school with the custodian’s children.

He is referred to as “Mr.” And if someone overheard you say his job was “menial labor”, your mom would know about it before you got home.

If asking my son to do these jobs is insulting, what message are we sending to ALL our students about the adults who do so for a living?

It has been three years since my son, now a sophomore, was washing team uniforms in middle school. He does not attend high school games because the noise and crowds over stimulate his sensory issues.

However, his classmate Matt is an all around sports fan. I spoke to his mother, Lisa VanWey, about the laundry duty our boys shared in middle school.

“I am surprised by the backlash,” she told me. “I absolutely think that washing the teams’ laundry was a positive experience.

We can try to teach these life skills at home, but Matt is more motivated by his teacher and classmates. He loves to help people.”

Matt is a regular at most sporting events and Lisa believes that those friendships were made during the middle school years.

“I feel we can trust the football players. Sometimes on game day, the players will want to run to Subway after school. They will text me and ask if Matt can go with them.”

I spoke to one of those football players, Josh Strohl, and asked him what message he thought administrators were sending when Matt and Garrett’s class washed table tops and other custodial type duties around our school.

“What message do you mean?” he asked. “Do you, or the other guys on the team, think the kids in Matt’s classroom are your servants? “Um, NO!” He was insulted at the insinuation.

“Why? Because they have disabilities?” “Well, that…but mostly because the kids in Matt’s class have washed other students’ dirty uniforms.”

“No. Matt likes to help. And not just bringing us water and stuff at the games. If we lose, he makes everyone on the bus feel better on the ride home.

He’s always in a good mood and you can tell he doesn’t want you to be sad.” Matt rides the football team’s bus to away games. He helps with water and whatever else is needed.

At the fall sports banquet, the football coach recognized Matt. He said that Matt started out as a manager, but ended the season as a team mate. It’s not just the football team that treats Matt as an equal.

This year, the basketball team voted Matt the most valuable player and presented him with a trophy. .Matt receiving his trohpy

Matt receiving his trohpy

So, what message have the parents, the teachers and the coaches sent to the athletes about our special needs children at Northeastern High School?

Franchise Photography captured that message in the photograph of Matt, aka Captain America.

Matt with the school Football Team
Matt with the school Football Team

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