A seven-year-old child had been looking forward to his school sports day. He had even been practicing for the event so that he could be as quick as his hero, Lightning McQueen. But then his dad told him some heartbreaking news. The boy was crushed by what his dad said, and he cried his eyes out.
Mark Birchall is a 28-year-old dad from Liverpool, U.K. He is father to seven-year-old Jacob, and like any doting dad, he would move mountains to make his son happy. But one day in the summer of 2017, Birchall was forced to give Jacob some news that broke the boy’s heart.
Jacob attends Banks Road Primary School in Garston, a port district in their hometown. And on July 18, 2017, Jacob had been due to take part in the school’s sports day. It was an event that the seven-year-old had been looking forward to and was very excited about.
Indeed, Jacob trained for the event. As Birchall explained to the Liverpool Echo, “He had been practising trial runs at school, and said he wanted to be as fast as his hero, the car Lightning McQueen.” For those who don’t know, Lightning McQueen is the lead character in Pixar’s Cars franchise.
But before the big day, a support worker at the school pulled Birchall aside. The school employee seemed to suggest that it would be a good idea if Jacob didn’t take part in sports day. The reason? They didn’t want Jacob to get upset or cause a scene if he didn’t beat his competitors.
Birchall described the situation in a message he posted on Facebook. “A few days ago one of the ‘special needs’ teachers approached me and said it’s sports day on the 18th July in the morning, and if I’d like I could keep Jacob off school until the afternoon,” he wrote.
This individual intimated that Jacob “may not like other children winning the races,” according to Birchall. “Because there are going to be parents present, [the employee] didn’t want there to be any scenes and for Jacob to get upset if he didn’t win a race.” But why was Jacob being singled out?
As Birchall explained in his Facebook post, “My son suffers with Asperger syndrome and struggles with social inclusion and ‘playing with friends.’” Apparently, the teacher thought that it would be better for Jacob to miss sports day so as not to make a fuss if things didn’t go his way.
Asperger syndrome is a type of autism. And someone who lives with the condition can find it hard to communicate, because they struggle to read the physical cues of others. For instance, they can find it difficult to read signals such as facial expressions, voice tonality and body language.
Because Jacob suffered from this developmental disorder, Birchall had to tell him that he wouldn’t be taking part in the school sports day. And the boy, who had been excited about the event, was devastated. As Birchall told the Liverpool Echo, “Jacob cried his eyes out when we told him he wasn’t able to go.”
While Birchall accepted that his son’s Asperger’s might have caused problems, he felt it was wrong for the teacher to suggest leaving Jacob out of the day entirely. And given that his condition concerns difficulties interacting with others, it would have been better for the seven-year-old to have had a role in the event.
“I feel they were embarrassed by him, rather than just thinking about his needs,” Birchall explained to the Liverpool Echo. “It was disgusting to single him out. It is excluding him, which is exactly what you are not supposed to do with children with special needs.”
Birchall continued, “It should be about inclusion – even if he didn’t take part, he could have handed out medals or been a referee.” Indeed, Birchall believes that the school was saving face instead of considering what was best for Jacob. “It feels like it was about keeping him away, about showing there were no issues at the school,” he added.
Understandably, Jacob didn’t take the news of his exclusion from the school sports day well at all. But Birchall wasn’t about to let his son be a victim of discrimination. Instead, the caring father came up with a plan to ensure that his son had the fun day he had wanted.
Unlike the classroom support worker at the school, Birchall put Jacob’s needs first. As he explained to the Liverpool Echo, “It’s hard to accept sudden changes like that when you have autism. So I had to take the day off work to do my own sports day with him.”
And after sharing his experience on Facebook, Birchall’s post received around 700 reactions. One commenter wrote, “The school should not be allowed to take on children with special needs if they are not willing to be ALL inclusive. No child should be left out regardless of what condition he has.”
Another in support of Birchall and Jacob said, “Discrimination needs reporting to the authorities. I have three sons, two with Asperger’s and one with autism. They are grown up now but I would never let anyone get away with something like this. What a disgrace of a school to treat your son in this way.”
In fact, the school’s head teacher, Linda Gibson, appeared to agree. “This was an entirely inappropriate suggestion that neither myself nor the class teacher were made aware of until after the event,” she said. “We have a clear policy that all of our children take part in sports day, and I have taken steps to make sure this can’t happen again.”
Indeed, the city of Liverpool overall is working towards making people with special needs feel more included. Measures have been taken to assist those with autism at the airport and at soccer games, for example, while some of the city’s workers have been trained to support anyone with the condition.
Meanwhile, Birchall believes that Jacob was singled out because signs of his condition aren’t obvious. He told the Liverpool Echo, “Because autism isn’t a physical, visible disability, I feel people with autism aren’t accepted the same way.”