On Fashion, Down Syndrome & the Varsity Letter

Posted on March 31, 2015

I told myself I wasn’t going to comment on this story. But it’s time.

Michael Kelley Down Syndrome

Michael Kelley is a high school student who participated throughout the basketball season for the East High Aces in Wichita, Kansas. At the end of the season, his mother purchased a varsity letter for his letterman jacket. And he proudly wore it. He wore it until he was asked by the school to remove the letter… because the letter was official and his status on the basketball team was not.

Michael has Down Syndrome and Autism. His determination to keep his letter has led to an outrageous and small minded situation. And it’s only getting worse.

East High Principal Ken Thiessen just wrote a letter to the local community addressing the issue. His response contained the word “however” followed by some interestingly contrite contradictions. He does not believe Michael Kelley is deserving of a Varsity letter.

“I have fully supported the work that has been underway the last nine months by the Tri-County league’s board to develop an athletic lettering program that creates league-wide standards for Tri-County athletes to earn an athletic letter and recommend a letter design. If the league’s recommendation is that the letter looks just like each school’s varsity athletic letter, I can and will support that as well. Yes a comment was made about a year ago to Mr. Kelley’s parent concerning the appropriateness of the letter on the jacket; however he has continued to wear his East High letter jacket in the hallways of our school. Our students work hard to earn the letters, medallions, honor cords and other visible symbols that represent their achievements in high school, and I love to see that school pride displayed in our hallways.”

Quick Mean Jab: Run on sentence much?

Superintendents are currently discussing an ‘alternative sports recognition’ for students ‘like’ Michael Kelley. And that’s what makes this conversation so important.

Societal norms only increase the struggle of living with Down Syndrome. It probably hasn’t occurred to Principal Thiessen that normative fashions for people living with Down Syndrome don’t fit. And because they don’t fit, they become inherently disabling. And they do not need to be.

People with Down Syndrome are known for their very specific facial features, most notably their almond shaped eyes. But someone who has Down Syndrome will probably have a body features that make dressing difficult. They are often short in stature with limbs that join wider at the hips and shoulders, delicately narrowing into their hyperflexible wrists and ankles. If someone with Down Syndrome purchases pants or shirts for the width, it will not fit in the length. And visa versa. Necks can be tight. Tactile sensitivities are likely. All of this leading to the fact that back to school shopping for a child with Down Syndrome is no easy feat. It may even be traumatic for the child.

Which is how I feel about the Letterman jacket situation. It is gut wrenchingly mean. This situation has probably reinforced every clothing experience Michael has ever had. Michael knows that cool products are not made for him. They are made for everybody else.

So this is why I am writing. I want Michael to know this won’t always be the case. There are a few people out there making clothing just for him. So instead of continuing to further shame the participants in this situation, I want to spread the word about those few who work to make Michael feel special instead of making him feel ‘Special Needs’.

Here are 3 standouts:

Soft Clothing: Clothing made gently for children with tactile sensitivities.

Soft Clothing Down Syndrome

Runway of Dreams: Cool clothing that is constructed to be adaptable.

Runway of Dreams

Open Style Lab: Makes really cool clothing for people of all abilities.

Rayn Jacket

And in the meantime, I will continue to fight and I hope you do too. Because the Kelley family hasn’t given up and it will get better. #itgetsbetter


My name is Liz Jackson and I write about the stigma of disability. I tend to focus on why I believe the mainstream inclusion of assistive devices would make for a profitable business venture. I have an idea about how to reduce the stigma of assistive devices. A reduction in stigma can and will save lives. I’d love your support.


What Others Are Saying

  1. Jeanne Garlach March 31, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    People with special needs must be treated equally!

  2. Danielle April 21, 2015 at 3:07 pm

    Just discovered your blog through your Takafumi Tsuruta post and I love it! Would love to add http://downsdesignsdreams.org/ to this list. They make jeans in modern styles that are tailored for body proportions that people with Down syndrome often have. My son is not even 2 yet and I am already having a hard time finding pants that fit him correctly so I look forward to more clothing options for everyone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *