LESSON LOST? What one photo reveals about our handling of disability

It was well after midnight. My eyelids were drooping when I came across an online story in the Toronto Star. Two words in the headline roused my attention: “Mom heartbroken.”

Anne Belanger and Don Ambridge, parents in British Columbia, took a stand when they publicized serious disappointment over their son’s recent class photo. Miles is a Grade 2 student living with spinal muscular atrophy. Like most of his classmates, he was probably looking forward to breaking out his well-rehearsed, picture-perfect smile for the camera. He did, but the image captured is far from perfect. In the photo, there is the teacher standing next to three rows of her students. The tots were positioned along two benches, some standing in between. Standard shot. Then there is Miles. Miles is on the other side from where his teacher stands, in his wheelchair and about two feet away from all of his classmates. He’s leaning toward the students as if to ensure he makes it into the frame. Yet, he’s smiling so wide, he appears to be the happiest kid ever.

Looking at that photo, my heart sank a little. I wanted to smile back, but I couldn’t. According to his mother, Miles has not seen the photo, and maybe only when he’s an adult might he feel the impact of what the image relays. He―for the sake of snapping a good picture that included everyone―was set to the left side of the other students. The result? He actually looks left aside.

I’ll say it: that positioning speaks volumes about how we address persons with disabilities. We don’t purposely mean to exclude them. There’s nothing malicious in how we organize events in such ways where the challenges of the disabled are considered after everything else is structured to our liking. There’s nothing purposeful in how we design spaces mostly for people with the same abilities. We don’t mean to assume that everybody on a city streetcar or bus can reach the bell to signal their next stop. And who is to say that wordy street signs don’t really speak to people with learning disabilities?  I get it. Still, in the case of Miles’s class photo, I find it difficult to understand that, when faced with a situation which requires addressing a person’s disability, we stick to an old school of thought: the status quo.

Why didn’t the photographer, the teacher―heck, even the school administrators who planned the photo day and later sent the picture to parents―see Miles for who he really is? He is clearly a child with different abilities. His reality offers everyone an opportunity to think not just outside the box, but as if there is no box.  Unfortunately they failed. Case in point: the set-up for the disputed class photo mirrored my class pictures from when I was a child; and that would be three decades ago. Apparently, I am not the only one questioning the rigid rationale behind the picture.

When I posted the article on Facebook, one professional photographer responded: I can’t even begin to imagine how this could of been done … shame on the studio & photographer for even allowing this picture to surface!

Someone else wrote: A part of me holds the teacher responsible as well. There have been times when as a teacher I’ve had to intervene and/or consult with the photographer…

Another response: Yes it is bad; to be fair the bench ends right where the chair is. I don’t think it was malicious. It was unthinking and insensitive. We have to be careful not to blow unthinking things out of proportion or we would all go to jail.

That last point came from my partner, a gifted filmmaker and photographer. His suggestions were to find ways to regroup the students so that the teacher and Miles were closer, or have Miles in the centre without obstructing other kids.

He stops short of claiming any outrage, and rightfully so.

“There’s no outrage when I question the photo,” I tell him. “We should be able to constructively speak about adjusting the way we do things so that we’re not forgetting or overlooking another person’s challenges.”

My boyfriend and I know from where this statement is coming. There is a personal reason why I felt so deeply for Miles and the hurt his parents experienced. When I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at age 11, I had no idea how crippling the pain would be. I discovered that harsh reality two years later when all my joints were affected and I found myself sitting out my high school gym classes. The Phys. Ed. teacher had no knowledge that arthritis can afflict children―honestly, who did? Her constant demands for a medical note seemed ridiculous considering I was visibly struggling to walk or sit down without wincing in pain. Still, my teacher overlooked the obvious and stuck to status quo. So did the school. No one considered placing me in another class to make up the 44 minutes I lost at least twice a week watching my classmates engage in the physical activities I could no longer do myself. And I never complained or even thought of suggesting a solution. I smiled despite what was happening around me; but I was sad. Today I remember how different I was made to feel sitting on that hard bench throughout Grades 8 and 9.  As my disease progressed and my mobility decreased over the years, I developed anxiety around fun, physical activities.

We’re much better at handling differences today. I’m grateful we’re evolving. The challenges of people living with disabilities will always be there; and that could easily be a good thing if we embrace these challenges as opportunities.

I leave with this point: When it comes to including people living with disabilities, there is a viable market for photographers and other artists to go dynamic with pictures. And for everyone else: stop being defensive, step out of the old school, and let’s build on a new school of thought―one that creatively recognizes our different abilities.

People who know me know I don't usually let me hands get photographed. But one artist captured me using synthetic hair as his medium. Image by: Carl Cassell

People who know me know I don’t usually let my hands (scarred from surgeries) get photographed. But one artist captured me by using synthetic hair, not charcoal, as his medium. Image by: Carl Cassell

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11 thoughts on “LESSON LOST? What one photo reveals about our handling of disability

  1. thanks for sharing this story sab. my anger grew while reading it and all I could think of is how I would react if it was my child. then I also thought of many times that I may have been a thoughtless person, never truly noticing how others may be possibly struggling for what could be a very simple accommodation.
    thanks sis

    • I’m sure you’re not alone, Nan, in your introspection (personally, I find you’re incredibly compassionate). I, too, fail to see that there are ways to bring more people in instead of leaving them out; it requires creative thought and the willingness to listen, without getting defensive. Thanks for your comment, sis.

  2. Amazing article Saadi. It’s more to how it feels which is correctly what we should be considering and less on who is to blame or whether it was on purpose. The why it was done can always be opened to unending arguments and interpretation, but the how you feel can never be taken away from you nor questioned. Terrific storytelling! Love always my talented writer, Powys

  3. Thank you Saada for your voice, speaking your truth, telling your story, fighting through your sadness to get to the other side. We need you to continue to speak and tell your stories for people who are afraid, ashamed and otherwise trying to fit into a world that doesn’t always regard those of us that don’t fit into whatever the mould is.

    • I am touched by the responses, including yours Saidah. There are people who think that Miles’s parents did the wrong thing by speaking out. I prefer to believe that they did a great thing by offering us all a lesson so that we can think about authentic inclusion moving forward. Thank you for your comment.

  4. It makes my head hurt when I see how ignorant some people are regarding people with disabilities.
    I take care of my Fiance who has SMA2, and I just started a blog about our lives together, and how I, as an able bodied moron, learn to deal with it and become the best caregiver I can be. Please check it out if you get a chance. Thanks!
    http://remotecontrolgf.wordpress.com

    • Hey there Lauren’s fiance,

      I enjoyed your blog entries. It’s pretty spectacular that you were inspired to write about Lauren and your lives together. Like Lauren, I have an amazing man in my life (high-five to your girl because she has you as a great support). My guy used to laugh when I called people able-bodied. Today, he’s an able-bodied supporter of raising awareness about disabilities. He’s seeing through new eyes the daily challenges that people with different abilities face. He recently took the initiative to buy foam and attach to handles in the home. Now I can open doors easier (better grip, less pain).
      My best to you and Lauren in your journey together. And thanks for sharing. I look forward to reading more.

      • Thanks so much for the kind words! Lauren is my whole world and I’m glad to share my experiences with the world! Your guy sounds awesome too! Having Lauren in my life has made me 1000 times better of a person and I am sure you have had the same effect on him! Have a wonderful day and thanks for reading!

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