Jason McElwain Scores
Big for Mainstreaming
In February Jason McElwain scored 20 points in his high school basketball game in Rochester, New York. He measures only 5-foot-6. Jason registered his point total in four minutes of play. And, to the excitement of advocates of children with disabilities, he did all of this as a mainstream special education student. Jason has a form of autism.
“McElwain’s success story demonstrates that children with disabilities can indeed achieve goals in a mainstream environment,” said Sudha Ramaswamy, Ph.D., a behavior analyst. “Furthermore, it reiterates society’s obligation to not only improve the capacity of individuals with special needs, but also increase their opportunities.”
Jason’s six long-range three-pointers in the game brought the Greece Athena High School home crowd to such a frenzy that fans stormed the court and carried him away as the final buzzer sounded. But even they couldn’t imagine the celebration they had begun. International media attention followed; so did a meeting with President Bush, who warmly hugged Jason at Rochester airport and asked if he could call him “J-Mac.”
“I ended my career on the right note,” Jason told the Associated Press after his team’s 79-43 victory. “I was really hotter than a pistol.”
This would be Jason’s first and last high school basketball game. McElwain, a senior, served as the team’s manager during his high school years. Coach Jim Johnson gave him the chance to play as a sincere thank-you for a job well done.
Mainstreaming, or inclusive education, integrates children with disabilities into an entire school community. Since Jason is considered to be high-functioning within the autistic spectrum, he has been able to greatly benefit from going to a typical school. “He’s a fun, high self-esteem kid,” said Mike Butler, the adaptive physical education teacher and girl’s basketball coach at the school. “Being on the team helped him feel part of the community.”
Despite his recent success and popularity, life has not been easy for Jason. “He could not always find his way,” said Butler. He did not begin speaking until he was 5 years old, and he still displays social shortcomings, such as misreading social cues and asking the same question repeatedly, according to Linda Pickering, 12th-grade Assistant Principal at Greece Athena as well as the school’s Special Education Supervisor. Displaying appropriate social interaction is a major deficiency for people with autism. Pickering adds that Jason receives “speech and language services for social skills and pragmatic language”; he no longer gets occupational therapy, but still takes English, social studies, and math classes in a special education setting.
No obstacle curbed his passion for basketball.
“It was his dream to play in a varsity basketball game,” said Johnson, “and I promised him I would give him this gift. Now he’s given a bigger gift to the world. He has given inspiration to people who need it.”
During the Big East men’s basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden in March, Rutgers coach Gary Waters played Jason’s tape before the opening game against Seton Hall. “The reason why we showed it,” said Waters, “is that regardless of the obstacles or the setbacks that you have in your life, it doesn’t deter you from being successful at what you believe in.”
For Jason, though, it was back to the job he loved so much. The Greece Athena Trojans still faced the regional playoffs, and Jason would not let the team lose sight of winning the title.
“He handled the situation with so much dignity,” said Coach Johnson. “At the same time he was being treated as a celebrity, his main focus was on the team. He just wanted to help the team win the sectionals.” And for the first time in more than 10 years, Greece Athena did just that.
Does Jason symbolize a movement toward finally embracing people with disabilities as capable of outstanding accomplishments? Maybe. Jason, who wants to attend community college in the fall, has appeared on ESPN and has fielded dozens of movie offers.
While educational debate continues, the real life lesson Jason has taught us is to seize the moment, and make the most of our opportunities.
Mike Cohen is the founder and director of Throwback Sports, an individualized and small-group sports program for children.#