Do We Still Need Events Just for People with Disabilities?

Do We Still Need Events Just for People with Disabilities? March 29, 2018

Churches across the country hosted Tim Tebow’s Night to Shine prom event for people with disabilities. But this year I read more criticism than praise. In Why the Tim Tebow Foundation Night to Shine Doesn’t Promote Inclusion  by Sarah Kim, she writes that this event, “… is a huge step back on achieving the true meaning of integration. By having able-bodied volunteers serve the prom-goers with disabilities, it depicts befriending people with disabilities as charity work.” Her idea, “I challenge the foundation to extend its invitation for ‘Night to Shine’ to people of all ages and abilities. A truly inclusive prom night would entail teenagers with or without disabilities dancing together, not focusing on their differences.”

Truly inclusive is a great goal, right? It sounds like what we want in our schools, churches, and communities. And for some, it’s becoming more of a reality every day. But not for all. The more open these events are, the less comfortable my family feels.

Will the push for inclusion at every event push out those who need and enjoy events just for them?
source: iStock

I’ve been in the disability community longer than most. My older sister has Down syndrome, and my son has level 3 autism. We feel most comfortable around families like ours, families who understand our lives and easily make accommodations for my sister and son instead of pushing them to fit into a mold that restricts them. That doesn’t happen in the typical world. And it doesn’t always truly happen in inclusive environments.

When my son is forced to sit in a social studies class with his peers, he gets anxious and stressed. He shrieks. He has self-injurious behavior. And he can get aggressive. He is safest and most comfortable in his life skills class. So in his IEP meeting, I insisted he not be made to attend the typical class. One year, in a different school than the one he attends now, I was told that wasn’t possible. That not only was it good for him, but it was good for the other students to learn to adjust to his needs. I don’t disagree with the importance of that for the other students, but it isn’t my son’s job to teach them empathy and compassion. He isn’t responsible for their actions and reactions to him. He is there to learn and grow in the goals we have set forth in his IEP. And none of those goals are being met in a setting designed for his typical peers. Especially because as they all grow up, the gap between his skills and those of his typical peers widens.

So instead of pushing our family to do more and more inclusive activities, we are drawn to places that are exclusively for us. We participate in Special Olympics, where everyone is welcome just as they are, and have been since before I started watching my sister compete in 1985. And we attend Joni & Friends Family camp, where all our family members can roam around, dance, and shriek whenever they need to. Where my typical son can be around other kids he doesn’t have to explain his brother’s autism to. Where my husband and I can talk to other parents and caregivers who speak the same language of acronyms that we do.

Inclusive events are wonderful and the ideal for many people with disabilities and their families. The goal is for there to be more and more of them. But I don’t want the events that are designed specifically for people with disabilities to be taken away by those who are able to participate in these inclusive events.

There are so many places in our society where families like mine don’t fit, it’s a gift to us to have places where we do.

Sandra Peoples is a pastor’s wife and mom to two boys. She’s the author of  Held: Learning to Live in God’s Grip (a Bible study for special-needs parents) and the upcoming new release, Unexpected Blessings: The Joys and Possibilities of Life in a Special-Needs Family.

What’s your opinion? Will the push for inclusion at every event push out those who need and enjoy events just for them?

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  • Michele Manhire

    Yes, yes, and YES! THIS! Thank you Sandra for saying out loud what my family experiences every day. Just like in the general population, there is a horribly tunnel-vision vein of parenting in the special needs community who feel the need to push irrationally hard for inclusion: “You Kid Deserves To Be Their Best!”, “Don’t Underestimate Your Kid!!”, “They’re Just Like Everyone Else!”, “If You Don’t Push Them, They’ll Never Grow!”, and many other such platitudes which only stab like daggers onto my heart each time I hear them. Sure, you’d like to think that they are being delivered with the best of intentions; but the effect they have on those of us who hear them (those struggling every day to thrive, let alone ‘be the best!’) is instead, quite frankly, painful. It’s like being shamed every single time I hear this claptrap! I’m sorry… by telling me that statement you just did, did you think I DIDN’T want my child to ‘be their best’? Do you think I actually ‘underestimate my kid’?? Do you seriously not realize that every. single. second. of the day I am focused on directing his life in positive, even therapeutic, ways so he CAN ‘grow’??? It hurts my head to even think about the power of those types of words, and the effect they have on my family. For many years, I wore a heavy cloud of personal responsibility for each and every way in which my son didn’t rise to meet some mythical standard of ‘normal’, or ‘expected’ behaviors or abilities amongst our SN community… it must be my fault! You see, I’m his parent, and everyone keeps telling me, with such urgency so as to not misunderstand their message, what to be ‘sure to do’ so as to not miss ANY chance to have him be ‘more than he is’. Within the first weeks of his life, it began with, “Get him into early intervention – it’s proven to make ALL the difference!!” (except my son has always been beyond the window of any particular set of expectations when he finally achieves anything), and it hasn’t stopped since. Imagine how it feels to be the parent of the ‘least able’ child of your entire special needs community group even, and have to watch all the ‘kids like yours’ making strides to being “included”, yet your own child gets left behind in the still-not-able corner of the room. My son is now 13, and I have said all along that inclusion is only good for those who are capable of functioning (and hopefully thriving!) in its world. My son is not one of those people. Do we NOT take him to general population events? NO; of course we do! Is he ONLY exposed to the special needs classroom environment at school? NO; but he isn’t 100% in the GE classroom either… and we’ve never fought for him to be. THAT would be counter-productive in our case. The world is still very new to this whole open-mindedness of embracing differences, and encouraging all to come together in one, big, happy event. What it actually boils down to, is that the general population is “allowing” people with special needs to participate in THEIR world… quite rarely do I see an ‘inclusive’ event which adjusts itself to accommodate the actual special needs population it claims to be embracing. It’s like forcing my child to play organized sports even though he might hate sports and everything about it… sure, he is able to do this activity, but does he want to? Is he comfortable in the environment? Does he share real friendships with the team mates? Ugh, don’t get me started. Offering me to join into YOUR world, only on your conditions, is not being “inclusive”… it’s being condescending, and often hurtful. Although still at the beginnings of social nirvana (where we all are generous and compassionate to one another, regardless of our needs), I simply ask our OWN COMMUNITY to be more understanding to one another, before we all push to be included in the rest of the world’s mayhem. Until then, I’ll stick with enjoying thoroughly “my people”, “our events”, and “his world”… if it’s a lot for me to process the ‘rest of the world’, I can only imagine how it feels to be my 13 year old son, who has Down syndrome and Autism, is completely non-verbal, and is happiest swinging in his swing, listening to his music, and dismissing various family members after engaging with them for maybe 2 minutes, signing for them to leave now when he is at home. Weekly, we take him places with us, and encourage experiencing activities the kids his age are doing… but it’s not his favorite thing to do. Just as with all aspects of life, we in the special needs community need better understanding, empathy, and kindness to one another before we expect it from the rest of the world. I ask you all to pray for this, as I do every day. We try to live our lives as an example of what we want, rather than shoving our wants down the throats of all around us. Lead, and they shall follow! (Right?)

  • Ruth M Sill

    Thank you for this post. As a mom to a 28 year old young man with DS, I waffle to be honest… Sometimes it feels amazing that groups or individuals want to do something ‘special’ for our people…but truthfully, I’m just not sure… We are in a chapter right now, where my son is declining some of the ”special needs” events to spend time doing things he wants….. Sometimes I feel that its easier to organize a huge event with treats and trinkets than to commit to building individual authentic and ordinary connections between typical and disabled people, real and meaningful shared experiences…like an afternoon fishing or a bike ride or working together on a project. Relationships that last have some good and some messy times, and its no different for those with special needs. Sometimes it does feel safer to be with families ‘like’ us…I don’t have the answer…we have enjoyed many events…but I have to say….. his participation matters to him because of the experiences he shares, he is not in it to win or bring home goodies…just one more lesson that the larger world may benefit from hearing…if they stop to listen…

  • Barb

    Was the criticism of “Night to Shine” by someone who has attended? Or by someone just in love with the concept of full inclusion? As a special needs family with a 17 year old daughter with Down syndrome, this was one of the best nights of her life. By her reactions, I could tell she felt like a princess, where she would be intimidated by a regular prom. And the buddies who danced and partied with her were her age peers and slightly older- it did not feel like a ‘charity’ event. We have tried to achieve full inclusion with our daughter from the first, but the school fought us from the beginning. At this stage of her life we are trying to help her participate where she gets the most benefit- and she is no longer open to full inclusion in the school. Don’t narrow our kids’ world further by taking away places where they can be themselves.

  • Nikki T

    Thank you so much for this perspective. I especially loved how you shared it is not your child’s job to teach other children about empathy. I admire how fiercely you advocate for your child, your sister, and all individuals with special needs.