Arlo, a 7th grader, running in a Cross Country race for the Ithaca City School District

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but this one tells just a fraction of the story... 

Arlo is a 7th grade student-athlete in the Ithaca City School District. He’s been running since his parents fitted him with an adaptive walker at the age of 2. Even though he’s a natural athlete, participating in sports has never been easy. Youth programs are rarely inclusive when it comes to kids with disabilities. Staff are often unfamiliar with necessary accommodations and modifications. Coaches are usually parent volunteers. The Special Olympics is a wonderful program but it’s also “special” and separates kids from their peers.

Running is different. The beauty of running is that it can be whatever you want it to be. It’s the only sport where you see professional and elite athletes lined up with average and novice runners at virtually every competition. You can try to beat other runners, you can focus on your personal best, or you can just do whatever makes you feel good that day. So when the opportunity to participate in 7th grade modified cross country arose, signing Arlo up was a no-brainer.

Nothing is that simple when you have a disability like Down syndrome though. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students with disabilities may participate in all services offered by public school districts, including extracurriculars. However, getting from legal requirement to meaningful participation isn’t that simple. Coach Jennifer Visscher, who was Arlo’s 6th grade English Language Arts teacher, saw his name and immediately started moving on getting Arlo the necessary support he needed. Unfortunately, when you coupled staffing shortages with the need for a guide who could also run, finding the right person became difficult. Arlo’s mother filled in for much of the season.

The effort was more than worth it. Arlo improved every week, gaining strength, endurance, and independence. He also acquired a significant fan base. As the season went on, folks started to recognize him and cheer him on. While Arlo’s fast, he doesn’t feel the need to prove himself. He picks up his pace at his pace. Runners from the Vestal team along with his own teammates would finish the race then meet Arlo on the course and run with him. By the end of the season, it kind of became this beautiful ritual for Arlo and the other runners.

Arlo running cross country with his team

That’s the thing about running, it’s a community. It’s not about when you finish, it’s about the accomplishment of crossing that line. Young runners learning how this sport enriches your life no matter your pace is as important as teaching them proper stretching and cool-down techniques.

So often we look at disability as something to overcome. That’s a false narrative. Disability is a natural part of the human condition. The obstacle is not the disability, it’s the hurdles set up by our society and our mindsets.


Is this an inspirational story? Absolutely! But the intention isn’t just to make you feel good. The hope is it will inspire us all to think differently about how to make our world more inclusive.

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