In sixth grade, we went to a choir concert and my son’s homeroom teacher (a special education instructor) ran up to me to tell me that he would only be on stage for some of the shows, but that she was working on it. Over the next few minutes, it emerged that the choir teacher had ideas about professionalism in performance that my son — who likes to dance enthusiastically, to his great joy and the delight of everyone watching — didn’t match. After the concert, we tried to engage with the choir teacher, to talk about my son’s right to fully participate but I’m sad to say that we never really got through. Each semester brought another fight for a program that included my son. Still, he loves choir, so we try to protect him from all this drama and keep him dancing.
I agree with their instinct here. There’s no reason to ascribe deliberate bad intent to the adults who made the bad choices, but they did choose, and they did hurt this eighth grader and her family.
So what now?
There are really two lessons to take from this kind of incident. One, adults need to be more aware of the harm they do when they exclude disabled children. They hurt girls like Morgyn Arnold and boys like my son, but they also teach the other kids that exclusion, that segregation, is normal and necessary. What did the kids in choir learn when my son was ushered off the stage? What did those other cheerleaders learn when their friend was taken away so they could pose for a second picture? Ableism, like all other forms of discrimination, is learned behavior.
Kids who want to play team sports should be able to play team sports. Kids who learn cheer routines should be able to cheer. Kids who want to sing should be in choir. Kids who are managers should actually manage teams, which is a real task in school sports that kids do when it’s not being used as a euphemism. Inclusion is not a favor that adults do for disabled kids, but both an ethical obligation and a legal right owed to all children.