Across the country this month, the culmination of many high school senior years will serve as a testament to what every parent wants for their child. After four years of embarking into unknown social and academic territory, their child will graduate not only with a diploma, but with memories of their experiences outside the classroom alone. As senior year comes to a close, students gather quintessential experiences in the form of college acceptance letters, embarrassing prom photos that their grandmother will show to her friends, and even their final high school football game. For most students, these milestones fly by at breakneck speeds. However, our education system has left many special needs children quite literally on the sidelines given that they are left out of nearly all the aforementioned milestone experiences.
The lack of equal athletic participation for special needs students glares as a prime example of this deficit in developmental equality. Although current policies such as IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) guarantee special needs students equal educational access and attention,2 there are unmet needs outside the classroom that every child socially and physically requires. Many high schools facilitate heartwarming moments similar to the experience of Blaze Mays, a high school athlete with Down Syndrome who got the chance to play in the Texas High School State Championship1. However, these examples emphasize how our schools downplay special needs athletic participation (which many parents consider to be imperative to any child’s social and physical development) to something that can just be novelly tacked onto the end of an unevenly scored game. While Blaze was still treated with inclusivity, he deserved to play, get involved, and be a part of the team years before the score reached 55-19.
Answering this inadequate attention towards the holistic education and development of special needs individuals, the Nashville Dolphins organization is the first of its kind. Founded in 2003 with only one swimmer, the Nashville Dolphins set out to provide special needs individuals with swim lessons because of the prevalent threat of drowning amongst special needs children. The Dolphins now host a swim team of 96 athletes and Special Olympics medalists, and support their 100% free-of-charge program entirely through individual donations, grants, fundraisers, and hundreds of volunteers. When speaking with Executive Director Brenda Vroon, I was shocked to learn that no comparable non-profit exists, leaving the Dolphins with a waiting list of 300 individuals and families hoping to take part in this socially and physically essential service. While Vroon shared a long term vision of providing this unique yet necessary service to every city, the organization is already shifting the definition of equal development by centering their mission around meaningful participation, health, community, and the merits of combined athletics.
Despite a cultural mode that seems to trivialize special needs athletic participation, such as in the common football game example, the Nashville Dolphins seek to set a new standard for meaningful athletic involvement. Brenda Vroon’s experience as the Head Aquatic Coach for Team Tennessee in the USA Games, which hosts over four thousand athletes, gives her a unique perspective on what truly constitutes equal and meaningful participation. When I asked Coach Vroon for her opinion on the potential downplaying effect of the football scenario, she raised attention to the need for unified sports. She states that the presence of inclusivity alone is beneficial, but that the Special Olympics’ inclusion of unified competition, between able bodied and special needs athletes, should set an example to schools, parents, and athletes. She wishes that “more high schools would get to where special needs people and typical body people compete together all the time.” She also refers to how many school sports are dominated by parents who get overly competitive and expect their children to be elite competitors. According to Vroon, “it might be nice if the world didn’t care so much about winning and that you could just have the joy of a sport.” This question can be applied to every instance in which special needs children are left out of crucial experiences like sports. If a school’s athletic department’s goal becomes chasing the individual success of only competitive athletes or teams, how can we expect them to provide sports as the unifying experience to all students? When Coach Vroon described how their Learn to Swim program leaves parents crying in excitement as their children are awarded ribbons, medals, and above all a team experience, the need for inclusivity in sports becomes even more apparent.
The Dolphins’ pursuit of meaningful participation not only involves using Special Olympics sports to address the athletic portion of the participation deficit, but also the social portion. As previously mentioned, high school milestones like prom dances are often taken for granted amongst most students, whereas their special needs classmates often do not attend. However, Coach Vroon described the social programs hosted by the Dolphins, such as their upcoming prom dance, where participants are permitted to engage and “have normal teen experiences” as any child should. She told me about Owen, a 16 year old member of the Dolphins who is excited to rent a tuxedo and watch his friends “feel like princes and princesses” during a special night at prom. Just as the Dolphins are filling the educational gap of meaningful participation in sports, their mission also serves as a means for special needs students to feel just as normally involved as their classmates.
Secondly, the Dolphins’ address the cause for health in their mission, which permeates not only physical needs, but social and mental needs that are left unmet for many special needs individuals. As Coach Vroon described from her experience coaching athletes in unified competitions, teaching athletes with special needs to swim isn’t always much different from teaching typical-bodied people. However, despite the attainability of swimming skills, drowning remains the leading cause of death among children with special needs, and served as one of the founding concerns of the Dolphins. According to the National Autism Association, accidental drowning is responsible for 91% of children 14 and younger on the Autism Spectrum.3 This is arguably a tragic symptom of how the physical development of special needs children is ignored under current policies. Special needs children often receive guided attention in the classroom under aforementioned policies, yet are completely left out of athletics, resulting in the deprivation of crucial learning experiences in relation to their physical development and fitness.
The health aspect of the Dolphins’ mission also applies to the mental health of their participants, who are often left feeling isolated from the social effects of the aforementioned lacking policies. It was heartbreaking to hear Coach Vroon’s initial story about Jameson, a Nashville Dolphin who joined the Learn to Swim program. Jameson’s loving parents adopted him at 19 months of age after Jameson had been through 14 homes, but were worried when Jameson was left feeling unhappy with any activity in which they tried to involve him. That was until Jameson became a Nashville Dolphin, after which his mother cried with joy when Jameson couldn’t stop talking about how much fun he had during swim lessons with John, a volunteer for the Dolphins. The joy felt by these children upon working with an organization like the Dolphins should serve as a testament to their mental health needs of inclusion and friendship, which are once again neglected by currently lacking policies.
Additionally, the Dolphins’ mission also looks to foster a sense of community for their participants, which is prevalent in how they address the lack of community that most special needs people face after graduating high school. Coach Vroon described to me how she became an empty nester after her children graduated from Belmont and Tennessee, whereas many parents of special needs children remain responsible for them into adulthood. This stems in part from how there is “nothing for them to do” after high school, leaving many parents saddened when other parents take milestones like driving or college for granted. Coach Vroon said that a lot of people are “not realizing there are people that are never going to get that milestone. It’s kind of heartbreaking that people don’t think of that kind of thing.” In order to counter the lack of post-educational community afforded to special needs people, the Nashville Dolphins do not have an age out policy, and continue to train some athletes into their forties. Coach Vroon sees this sense of community as a vital support system for families and their children. She even recounted meeting a 73 year old Bocci player at the Special Olympics, which further verified the organization’s calling to provide individuals and families with a community at ages where the current education system completely ends.
The organization’s mission toward building a sense of community is also present in the Dolphins’ dedication to making accommodations and charitable efforts. Coach Vroon told me about Mack, a Nashville Dolphin who goes to Vanderbilt through the Next Steps program and needs to schedule lessons around the limited hours of the VUAccess shuttle. Despite facing the challenge of not having a pool of their own, the Dolphins still manage to accommodate and provide timely lessons for athletes like Mack and others who travel from up to 2 hours away for 30 minute lessons. This showcases the care of a community to participants who may have felt as if they do not have one, and is only possible through donated pool time and volunteer work. It was unfortunate to hear from Coach Vroon that many donors only give to large charities they know like St. Jude or Best Buddies, whereas they could easily help the Dolphins build a pool of their own. Additionally, even Vanderbilt has sadly loosened certain volunteer programs, leading to fewer volunteers whose service was once imperative to building this community for the Nashville Dolphins. Nonetheless, the effort made by this organization to sustain accommodations and support for their athletes is a testament to the community that they have built to once again compensate for where the greater system fails.
Pioneering equal development for special needs individuals, the Nashville Dolphins have centered their mission around meaningful participation, health, and community, all while demonstrating a need for policy changes regarding combined athletics. Coach Vroon believes that their mission could be carried out worldwide, not just in Nashville, if policies were made to encourage schools to facilitate unified athletics where special needs athletes are not separated from the general population. She revisited her previous statement in the context of current school athletic policies, reaffirming that “it would be an amazing world if we just weren’t always so focused on winning. We could be more focused on the experience and including other people.”
1 “CBS Sports on Tiktok.” TikTok, http://www.tiktok.com/@cbssports/video/6873302961599073542.
2 “4 Laws That Shaped Special Education in the U.S.” Www.brandman.edu, http://www.umassglobal.edu/news-and-events/blog/special-education-laws#:~:text=Originally%20passed%20in%201975%2C%20the,physical%20and%2For%20mental%20disabilities.
3 “Autism & Safety Facts.” National Autism Association, nationalautismassociation.org/resources/autism-safety-facts/.