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Sunday, April 1, 2012
Equality is Illusive
This is not a photo shopped picture. I saw this image on Facebook and thought someone was having fun making a horribly wrong photo. Surely more than 20 years after the ADA was passed into law such a gross violation could never occur. This is wishful thinking at best and at worst pure fantasy. Segregation of people with a disability is not only still present but rampant. The only substantive change I have observed in the last twenty years is the type of prejudice encountered is no longer the same. The violation of disability rights is now couched in ever so polite and legal terms. Institutions know the ADA must be adhered to. Institutions know IDEA meetings must take place. This does not mean institutions want to follow the law or be inclusive. In my opinion, lip service is paid to the law. ADA violations are common place and twenty years post ADA stock replies, excuses, abound. Of course we are committed to being inclusive. Oh how many times I have heard that line used as I was excluded from participating in multiple activities at my son's public school when he was a boy. For instance, one year in elementary school the teacher sent home a note stating she was desperate for parents to go on a filed trip as chaperones. I filled out the form and wrote I would be happy to help. The next day I got a note "You cannot be included but thanks any way". Deeply annoyed, I asked exactly why I was excluded. Another note came home: "Chaperones must be healthy and there is no accessible bus". So much for the ADA. This pattern of exclusion never wavered in my son's public school. Public school administrators hated me and I will confess the sentiment was shared on my part. Inclusion from their point of view was costly and not necessary. I was not advocating for people with a disability but for myself alone. I was perceived to be singularly unusual and selfish in the extreme, a drain on limited resources better spent on students--average students, meaning students without a disability. There was a fundamental miscommunication that was never resolved. The school was, and to the best of my knowledge, remains hostile to the inclusion of parents with a disability.
Given the above, why was I shocked by the image? The exclusion is so stark and so obviously wrong no excuse is possible. This sort of segregation is over the top. It is blatant and makes me shudder. I shudder because it was public. We anthropologists would consider this a humiliation ritual. The group, meaning the audience and participants, do not value the person sitting in the wheelchair. Every man woman and child in attendance learned one thing at this event. Segregation of all people that use a wheelchair is socially acceptable. It is the norm. Inclusion is an ideal we can choose to talk about but it is not really something that is valued or readily achieved. Inclusion is something we get to pick and choose out of the goodness of our heart. Surely I am being too harsh, too demanding, too uppity. All words I have heard levied at me again and again. No, words cannot express my outrage. And like my son's public school, the school this child attends does not get it. Once the above image went viral the school released an apology of sorts. The school in question press release stated:
"It was a regrettable oversight that the student with special needs was not positioned with the rest of his schoolmates during the choral performance. The student has been a member of the chorus for the entire school year and there have been no prior issues. The choral director has cited several reasons why this occurred but accepts responsibility. The matter will be investigated and, if necessary, appropriate personnel action will be taken. That action could include a letter of reprimand and/or sensitivity training."
A regrettable oversight? Reprimand and/or sensitivity training? No excuse can explain away the the public humiliation this child endured. A humiliation sanctioned by the teacher, audience, and participants. No amount of sensitivity training is sufficient. No reprimand too lenient. Blatant bigotry reared its ugly head and the school did not even recognize it. This is as bad as the event itself. Worse yet, I suspect this is the tip of the veritable iceberg. I attended many public school events when my son was little. Children are repeatedly told to be on their best behavior. Notes are sent home about dress codes that cannot be violated. The reality is the teachers and school are putting on a show, a public demonstration celebrating how good the school is. Look at us, we are great. What I want to know is what happens to this student daily. Is he segregated during recess, gym, art class, on the school bus? Most likely. How many regrettable incidents take place when there are no cameras around? How often is he shunted aside during choir practice? Is what he experienced the norm?
The boy's mother said her son was inspired to sing in the choir because of the TV show Glee. I lowered my head in disbelief, deeply saddened. This boy's role model is a fictional television character played by a man without a disability. I again thought of my son's experience as a secondary school student.One day he brought home an assignment about civil rights. Great I thought. I told him to go to my office or the library and pick out a book that was of interest. Did he follow my suggestion? Of course not. He went on line instead and somehow stumbled upon the name Ed Roberts. I was thrilled. He filled out the terrible rubric secondary schools rely upon with a short paragraph about Ed Roberts life and fight for disability rights. The next day the rubric was returned with a short note "The assignment is supposed to be about civil rights. Disability is not an appropriate topic, it is different than real civil rights". And here lies the heart of the problem. There is no social mandate for disability rights. Sure a multitude of laws exist. Laws that are violated daily. Laws that are not valued. Laws that are mocked. Laws that are not even perceived as civil rights legislation. This makes my blood boil. What gets me the most angry are secondary schools that explicitly teach students and adults the segregation of people with a disability is not only acceptable but the norm, mere oversights easily negated by sensitivity training. At no point do students learn about disability rights as civil rights. Until this becomes part of the core curriculum in secondary schools and on college campuses I do not envision change taking place any time soon.