Class Photo

Take a gander at this 2nd grade class photo.  Notice anything different?  Does anything about this photo not sit well with you?

miles

If you found something remiss about this photo, you are not alone.  Quite a kerfluffle is being made about this photo.  For those of you who hadn’t noticed, this lovely group of children and their teacher appear to be quite physically separated from a wheelchair bound classmate.  Read the full story from The Province here.

When I read and saw this I was heartbroken.  Nobody thought to arrange this kid with the gorgeous smile and obviously happy spirit with the rest of his classmates?  Why?  Was the photographer rushed?  Was the teacher uncaring?  How does this happen?  What we’re seeing here is not right, right?   If this were your kid, would you smile and nod and stay silent about what is clearly a terribly unrepresentative photo of your child’s year in grade two, or would you be the squeaky wheel who advocates for a photo retake, a new photo which reflects your child’s inclusion with his classmates and his absolute thrill to be there with his peers?  Surely you wouldn’t settle for a class photo that  clearly makes your child in a wheelchair look like a segregated afterthought?

And if your kid is among the happy children there on the bleachers, does the fact that their one classmate in a wheelchair sits so far away from the rest of his class sit well with you, or were you as happy to get the class photo retake as the Ambridge family was?  Miles is separate, but equal.  Right?  Right.  Except no.

I’m not sure that this was a conscious decision to exclude him from his able-bodied classmates so much as it was the result of not caring enough to ensure a quality photo was taken, period.  Given that I have two small children with physical disabilities who are in wheelchairs, I am obviously biased.  But the technical imbalance of this photograph, at least in visual terms, surely transcends any bias I might have.  From a technical standpoint this photo does not look right–like, at all.  But what really stands out is the indisputable happiness on Miles’ face.  He is thrilled just to be there, with some of the best mates a boy could hope for.

But to echo the sentiments from the Ambridge family, Miles’ joyful grin might make this class photo even more heartbreaking than it would be otherwise.  Miles is profoundly aware that he is different from his peers, but his parents (like so many of us) do everything they can to filter what he sees and hears and interprets in order to preserve his sense of self.  To make sure he feels included and accepted.  His parents filter so much more bias and negativity from him than he could ever notice or process on his own.  Miles is only seven years old, and his parents–like every parent I know–are committed to doing whatever it takes to ensure he grows up with self confidence and with all the social skills and public education it takes to become a happy and productive citizen.   It would be nice for them to be able to take a breather and let their kid have his school photo taken without having to intervene, but nope.   Turns out that a class photo is a battle, too.

And here’s the thing!  (this is the part where you need to have read the Province article to which I linked above.)  His parents would never have gone to the media or agreed to share the photo or be interviewed if the photography company (Lifetouch) would have taken the family’s initial complaint seriously and made it right.   How hard would it be to look at that sweetly smiling face so far away from his classmates and immediately offer an apology and a picture retake? Just move all those other kids to the right, reposition teacher next to Miles and voila!  A lovely and balanced photo awaits!  But it took “coaxing” for the company to conclude that the photographer didn’t make the best creative decision and that maybe a class photo retake was in order.   And everyone–the Lifetouch photography company, the school–threw the photographer under the bus over this.  Don’t get me wrong, the buck stops with the photographer here–but for the school to suggest they never saw the photo until the Ambridge family brought it to their attention seems ridiculous to me.  Still, Miles’ parents pushed it.  They knew that Miles deserved a more adequate photo of himself and his classmates, and when their complaints went unacknowledged, they went to battle.

As a parent of children with a disability, I ask what is NOT a battle?  Nothing, apparently.  Nothing is not a battle.  We become a squeaky wheel not for ourselves but for our children.  Wheelchairs  need an entrance to your restaurant without steps.  We need a school bus with a functioning wheelchair lift.  We need a ramp to access the merry-go-round.  And much of the time we need written permission in advance before we can access these things.  “Can’t” is not in our vocabulary and we will NOT allow our kiddos to be made to feel as if they do not belong with their peers.  In my opinion, that is as much a disservice to their peers as it is to them.  Diversity, people.  Compassion, you guys.

I’ve read the reader comments on the Province article.  Some are supportive, but many are depressing to me.  But we parents of disabled children–or parents and friends and family of disabled children and adults–we are not unreasonable people.  We simply advocate for those we love who cannot advocate for themselves.  And in the cases of our disabled children, we advocate for them in part as role models  so that they may witness our efforts, learn strategies, watch our persistence, sense our patience, and know that it all comes from our passion and love for them and that they deserve it.  And that goes for all our children, able bodied or not.

And let me assure you–there is nothing we would rather do than NOT have to be that squeaky wheel.  It’s just that sometimes we have to put on our big girl/boy pants and keep the world steady for our kid.  The naysayers can’t stop us from making sure our kids have the most fulfilling life possible for as long as we have them.  We parents have thick skin.  Slight us all you want.  The bad news for you is that the kid drives an electric wheelchair–get in his way and that’s 350 pounds of whimsical karma grinding down on your toes as he passes you by.

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Cassandra can be found on Twitter @aclevergirl.  Learn more about her family’s unique challenges and why they have hope for a cure for muscular dystrophy at byrdsforacure.org.