On Monday, the class photo of Canadian second-grader Miles Ambridge went viral on the Internet because the boy, who uses a power wheelchair, was visibly isolated from the rest of his class in the picture. His parents were outraged, as they should be, but the story was sad for multiple reasons. Commenters on blogs and social media across the web called the incident shocking. This is a telling indicator that our society remains painfully unaware of everyday oppression for millions of people with disabilities around the world. These “shocking” displays of ableism happen all the time. The fact that most people find them so surprising is just another reminder of how far we have to go in a society where people with disabilities are excluded even from diversity discussions. It says a lot about the ways we have failed America's largest minority when the computer on which I type this piece underlines ableism as a “non-word”. It may not be in your mental dictionary or even in your physical one, but it is in your neighborhood, in the way you've been taught to think, and in your concept of what it means to be normal.
Ableism is hardly discussed, at least not in mainstream media. You may not think about it very much, but to call it shocking is to turn your head away from a very real discrimination that happens so frequently, and yet, rarely captures the attention of the newspapers, the cameras, or even your conversation over breakfast. Cases like that of Miles Ambridge usually are tucked quietly into the “that’s how it is” file. Innocent children like Miles, seeking an equal opportunity in the world, are told they are too different by the actions of their peers. Millions of similar photographs are hung on refrigerators, by parents who would cry, but know too well that this is just one of too many battles that will challenge them along the way. That, or they will hang up the picture without a fight, not because they don't care, but because they have already fought for so many things, and the game has made them tired. When I saw this article, I saw my elementary school self, and all the class photos, the concerts, and the lunch tables that isolated me as a matter of course. I felt the same sadness expressed by all the other readers, but unlike them, the chills pulsing through my body came for Miles, and all the similar struggles I know would lie ahead for him. They came because the story was so real for me, and so commonplace it makes me feel sick to my stomach. Millions of people will face the same discrimination, and no one will lift a pen to tell their stories.
Several days later, a follow-up article surfaced applauding the photography company for taking another class photo, this time with Miles seated in a chair, supported by an assistant.
The blogosphere has since filled with approval for the retake; even the boy’s parents have called it “gorgeous”. While it's a personal choice to get out of the wheelchair or not, I don't think the tail of the retaken photo has sent the right message by suggesting that the solution for the act of exclusion was to remove the child from his wheelchair. This implies that his wheelchair was the problem, not the attitudes of his school and the photographer. It suggests that the way to practice inclusion is to take away our visible markers of difference rather than change the way we treat people who look different from ourselves. What kind of lesson does that teach the other students and all those who could learn a thing or two about acceptance and making everyone a part of the group? The root injustice remains unaddressed, and the school and the photographer will not have to face the reality of their own prejudice. The media had an excellent opportunity to start a discussion about disability pride, and to talk about the institutional barriers that plague a rich cultural community of people with disabilities. But that is not the conversation it started. Instead, it was more of the same, perpetuating the idea that we have no responsibility to accommodate those who do not fit the mold, because “hush, hush” we're supposed to busy ourselves being grateful that we're allowed to go to mainstream school at all. Again, we are told that children like Miles, and people like me, are best off when our differences are hidden, and our bodies made to look as close to the hegemonic concept of normal as possible. Young people in wheelchairs, or with any kind of disability were denied another chance to have a meaningful dialogue, and told that there is something wrong with them, and not with the second class treatment they endure as a marginalized population.
I hope next time you see a story about a person with a disability being left out, discriminated against, or humiliated, you will not feel shocked, just angry because you know we can do better as a human family. I hope you will check your privilege and realize that the disability rights movement isn't just a bunch of people in wheelchairs looking for you to build a ramp. And I hope that someone will tell Miles, and every other child like him, that they deserve an equal place in this world, wheelchair and all.