Why Churches Need to Stop Hosting Special Needs Proms

Why Churches Need to Stop Hosting Special Needs Proms December 19, 2018
Photo Credit Big Stock


For the past three years, Tim Tebow has hosted a “Night to Shine” a prom designed for individuals with disabilities. Last February more than 500 churches participated in the event. There were an estimated 75,000 children with disabilities that attended the events. People watching felt good that these kids had a chance to do something fun. The media widely reported the event as “feel good” news. However, there are a growing number of organizations and parents, like me, that find these events offensive and discriminatory.

Since the 1970s the United States government has been working diligently to improve inclusion of children with disabilities in public education. Before the first laws were signed, most children with disabilities were not able to attend school. If children were able to participate in school, children learned in segregated classes with other children with disabilities.

A law signed by Gerald Ford called Education for All Handicapped Children in 1975 changed everything. Education became a right for children with disabilities. The legislation introduced the Individualized Education Program. Kids with disabilities had the right to go to school. Public school had to accommodate the needs of the children.

In 1990 the Government updated the law to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Throughout the years’ requirements have been added to IDEA that includes early childhood intervention, transitional programs following high school, making schools safer, increasing graduation rates, and building better relationships with parents.

For more than 40 years, our country has worked hard to improve the inclusion of all children in classes. Children with disabilities no longer are sent to state institutions. Thanks to IDEA more children graduate. Transitional programs help children develop life skills, and help them find occupations to meet their capabilities. Today children with disabilities are actively engaged in classrooms. Most of these children don’t need separate classes to receive specialized instruction.

All of these are amazing victories for our community.

With that said, why on earth would we want to take a step backward and have a Prom only for children with Special Needs?

We have busted our butts for more than 40 years for inclusion of children with disabilities in education. Separating children with disabilities for a prom takes us back to the 1970s. A time in our society where we placed no value on the education or inclusion of the child.

Children with disabilities don’t need their prom. Instead, we need dances that are inclusive for all children. High Schools across the country are capable of making all of these events accessible and inclusive. Church proms are unnecessary

Not only are the special needs proms offensive because of their lack of inclusion, but they are also demeaning to the child. Churches use these proms to get press and attention for doing good deeds. The portrayal this gives to society is children with disabilities are subhuman. Our children become poster children for charity. The faces of our children are splattered all over the media so everyone else can feel good about themselves.

The narrative that children with disabilities need charity and are sub-human is toxic. The public views the child for their impairment rather than their value as a human. Which the narrative then marginalizes them as individuals. Our children go back to the fringes of society.

When we do charity for others, our actions say we are helping someone that is less fortunate than us. Children with disabilities are not less fortunate than us. They do face adversity. However, every human has difficulty in their lives. Children with disabilities don’t need to be propped up on a pedestal. They want to be like everyone else.

We must see the child first and the disability second. All children are far more than their limitations. We need to celebrate all people for their full worth and not a fragment of their personality. When we design proms for children with disabilities, we highlight their differences and not their real value.

I can’t speak for everyone. However, I know many adults in the disability community that find these proms offensive and self-serving on the part of the churches that put them on.

These proms do not foster a narrative of empowerment for the child. Nothing is empowering about a segregated prom that emphasizes their disability. Churches use these proms to feel good about themselves – nothing more and nothing less.

We need to end this trend of “Special Needs Proms.” Work with your community to build inclusion. Develop ways to integrate children with disabilities into mainstream events. All these kids want are friends, inclusion, and acceptance.

Instead of spending money on Special Needs Proms, invest in programs that unite the community and build acceptance. Children like mine will never be accepted if we are continually segregating them from the masses.

Children with Disabilities don’t need your charity.

They need your acceptance.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • LostLoonie

    Thank you for stating what should be so obvious. The last thing children with disabilities need is more segregation. Just like any other child they want to do what their friends are doing WITH their friends.

  • Correct! Though you’d be surprised how many parents in the disability community eat these proms up. They don’t realize they perpetuate the problem.

  • Jennny

    Well said, I work with adult Learning Disabled folk. They are all too keenly aware of their differences and limitations. I was pleased when our local bus company installed audio of their routes on every bus so the LD (who get free bus passes here in Wales) could travel and not be embarrassed at getting lost for example. (if you can’t read, you can’t read street names etc). The worst example was taking a LD friend to a church supper. Trying -and failing – to be helpful, the greeter pointed to seats for DH and I and said to our LD friend, ‘would you like to sit next to Fred?’ Fred was the only other LD person there…the assumption being that all LD folk like one another and get on swimmingly with every other LD person on the planet. We said the three of us wanted to sit together and made sure we introduced Fred to our friends there, just as one would any other stranger!

  • I hadn’t thought of this perspective before, thanks for bringing it up. I would like to hear your input on this. Our school district has a robust program for special needs students, and the goal is to get as many students into mainstream classrooms as possible. Some students are thoroughly integrated into classes and just meet with a teacher (a reading specialist, for example) once a day. Some students, though, spend their days entirely with the specialists. And there is a prom just for kids in the Valley Program (as it is called) who don’t go to the main prom. The students who go can’t handle loud music or crowds or other such situations that are present at the other prom. Student and teacher volunteers run the prom. My friend is a special ed teacher and her son is autistic, and she said it was great because Tommy was able to go without the loud music, crowd, and flashing lights disturbing him.

    But I get what you mean about the separate promos. (And on a side note, the church I grew up in wouldn’t have a prom because they believe dancing is a sin).

  • Right! The assumption that just because you have a disability you will want to be around others with disabilities – is WRONG! We have been in groups with other kiddos like my son – and guess what – he doesn’t get it, doesn’t care, and he just wants to be friends with the kids he knows in our neighborhood.

  • I think there are cases like you describe where making accommodations for the event to be more sensory friendly – is totally ok. Events that are held at schools as you describe are totally different than the events that churches put on. For instance, the former church I attended did not have a “sensory friendly” prom. They simply used the High School, where the regular prom had been held, and threw it the very next day for kids with disabilities. Still loud music, still lights, etc. There was nothing “sensory friendly” about it. They had a red carpet. Which I think is totally degrading. Cheering on a child for going to prom because they are disabled? It’s patronizing. However, in cases like you describe I think it’s totally acceptable. I think the best option in cases like that would be to integrate typical children into the situation so they can be there with friends too. Just because 2 people have disabilities doesn’t mean they will like each other. so this notion that it’s to bring kids together “who get it” is disgusting to me. My son likes the friends in the neighborhood that are neuro-typical. He’d be weirded out at an event with strangers that had autism like him.

  • Jim Jones

    Related: Georgia school hosts first racially integrated prom

    April 4, 2014


  • Anonyme

    I have a different view of this.
    I have been to Night to Shine for three years and I don’t think it’s exclusionary, but a place where young adults who share common challenges can come together for a night of fun.
    I’ve been to “normal” proms, for lack of a better word, and I always felt awkward and uncomfortable, even though I had a couple of sort-of-friends with me. I just felt like a fish out of water, watching the social interactions that I couldn’t quite grasp.
    Then, after graduating high school, I started doing Special Olympics and eventually Night to Shine. I suddenly felt accepted. No more confusing, to the letter, social requirements. It was also good for me to see that there were neurotypical people with open minds. For years, I was treated/seen as the family freak by my father, at least one sibling, and a grandmother. It’s a night for like minded people, and completely voluntary.
    There are camps and sports for people with epilepsy, heart disease, and other conditions. Should we discourage these, too?

  • Morgan Lefaye

    Our local buses have audio as well. They help me know where to get off if I’m on a route for the first time, busy reading, or talking to someone.

  • that’s awesome!

  • Kathleen

    It could also be that some of these children ARE with their friends at the prom. As long as it is totally voluntary, I do not see a problem.

  • Jennny

    But this is Wales where the joke is we are still happily living in the 1950s, so it was quite revolutionary when it happened.

  • LostLoonie

    It’s only a problem if these children are excluded from their school’s actual prom.

  • the problem is the message it sends to the masses. THe narrative of the value of these children. That’s the problem

  • If they can attend a regular prom – no need for a separate one that demeans and makes them a spectacle.

  • Kathleen

    Do you think a school would ever exclude a student from a prom? I can see that happening if the student was behaving violenting or something like that. It would be a huge problem if the a school excluded anyone from any activity they wanted to attend.

  • Children can’t be excluded based on disability

  • Jillian Palmiotto

    I appreciate you sharing this perspective. I am curious to know if you have ever attended one of these events? I will say that I am part of a church that has a growing special needs ministry and we do partner with 2 other large churches to host a prom each year. However, we do not do Night to Shine because it appears to be solely an annual event. Our 3 churches promote inclusion for every person who attends our churches and has a disability. Depending on the needs of the person, his/her desires for inclusion, and the comfort and desires of the parent/guardian, we encourage neuro-typical peers to become a one-on-one friend to the person who helps implement accommodations that make inclusion possible. But we don’t stop there – we encourage our families to get to know one another, to ask questions, to educate themselves, to bridge any gaps between them that are keeping them from seeing their similarities.

    Our prom is not just an event to celebrate people who have disabilities and their amazing gifts and talents that often go overlooked, but an opportunity to educate the neuro-typical population that people with disabilities aren’t any different than everyone else. Honestly, we all have some kind of “special need”. In the training of our volunteers, we tell them that the expectation is not to just attend a one-night event as a “charity” event, but to make a friend in their area with whom they can hopefully grow into a life long friendship. We seek to create a more inclusive world though the event. We also have several older people who attend who never got the chance to participate in a school prom and some who unfortunately just never get invited to their proms. I am happy to report that because of events like this in our area, high school kids are finally “getting it”. One of our local schools voted a young man with cerebral palsy as prom king at their school prom…not because they felt bad for him for having a disability but because he’s just so stinking funny, friendly, and popular!

    So, I ask if you have ever attended one or spoken to one of the event coordinators to understand the purpose behind the event? I want to be clear…I do not support every “special needs” event, but I do support those that are seeking to provide opportunities to people with disabilities that may not be available without the event and those that seek to educate the rest of the population on the importance of inclusion. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

  • LostLoonie

    I wasn’t thinking about the spectacle aspect, but I should have. This “Look at me!” style of charity is so foreign to me.

  • I have. My former church hosted them and it was all for SHOW. all of it. Unless you have a child with special needs, you will never understand how demeaning the “charity” aspect is for many in our community. I think it’s great if you want to teach inclusion. That’s great. Ongoing ministries are great. But pairing them up with a neuro-typical kid? Really. How about you have an adult to help the child. Have an adult shadow the child – one that is equipped to manage their specific needs. No child would be prepared to handle a high needs child. Pairing a kid with someone because they are disabled – is demeaning. Period. It perpetuates the stereotype that children like mine are friendless and in need of “help”.

  • OMG come to my world. EVERYONE wants to make a buck helping kids like mine. it’s GROSS!

  • Jillian Palmiotto

    That’s VERY unfortunate if it was really all for show. Just to clairfy…we only pair them with neuro-typical kids at the dance and at church if it’s appropriate. That’s a decision that is made between myself, the parents, and the student (again…if appropriate) about pairing them with a student their own age. Our older students (high school and older) will typically tell us that they prefer a same age or close in age buddy because it makes them feel less singled out. If they are not high functioning and independent and their needs are more moderate or severe, then obviously we pair them with someone who is better equipped and trained (if necessary) to handle those needs. So, of course we have adults in addition to teens who shadow our students and young adults. I 100% agree with you that a child is not prepared to handle another student with significant needs. Having a peer shadow someone with high needs would be a danger to the person with the disability as well as the neuro-typical teen. I also wanted to clarify that not every kid with a disability needs someone to shadow them all the time. We have successfully integrated several of our students into our church services, overnight camps, and events by giving them an adult shadow at first, and then a teen shadow, and then removed the shadow all together because we were able to teach everyone else that the person with the disability is able and deserves to be doing the same thing that everyone else is doing. As a mother of a special needs child, I know that you also understand that every single family situation is unique. Our civic duty is to meet every person where they are in the struggle of disability, see them as God sees them as unique and unlimited in their potential, and educate the world around us to see the person and the strengths, not the disability. I do truly appreciate your perspective and your ability to spark a great discussion. However, I do believe we need to be very careful about generalizing our own opinions and experiences as what should be done for everyone. I can only speak for our church and the families that we serve when I say that we simply invite people, get to know them and their needs, and meet those needs – whatever that looks like for them.

  • Anat

    My kid did not attend his school’s prom. He probably wouldn’t have attended under any circumstances, but specifically in his case, he could not bring his partner, who is an alumnus of the same school who graduated a year prior.

  • Thank you for your response. Yes, there were a variety of students at this prom – friends, siblings, volunteers who were interested in being a part of it.

    I agree – expecting people to be friends with someone because they have one thing in common is silly. I am not going to be friends with every green-eyed person on the planet!

  • Raging Bee

    It also may cause a lot of resentment in the neurotypical kid who’s ordered to be “friends” with a special-needs kid he has no idea how to deal with. That could easily have exactly the opposite effect to what was intended. Ordering or requiring kids to get along with other kids generally doesn’t work all that well.

  • Brittany

    You clearly have not been to my church’s NTS….this night is FOR THEM. We make THEM feel amazing because a lot times they feel ridiculed by society because they are “different”. We have a red carpet, animal therapy, music therapy, hair and makeup, everyone gets crowned, food, we will have a carousel, karaoke, live music, pre-prom festivies in the parking lot, prizes, etc etc etc. Our guests LOOK FORWARD coming to prom every single year. They don’t feel segregated. Typically, kids with special needs graduate high school between the age of 18-21, and after that, there is not much (in our area) for them to do. We have Friday Night Shine (karaoke, games, and more) and prom once a year. Maybe you should consider how the guests are enjoying prom and not how YOU think. I have personally seen how it has affected my community of special needs families and the community itself.

  • I didn’t go to my regular prom, why would I want to go to something “just for” disabled kids that’s bound to be full of glurge and condescension?

  • I’m disabled, and Night To Shine is pure crap.

  • Don’t presume to speak for the disabled, honey. It’s rude.

  • Brittany

    It’s based off me talking with them?? NOTHING is rude about what I said since it’s based off what THEY have PERSONALLY said.

  • Brittany

    Just one interview of many, from my church.

  • Nice propaganda, but you STILL don’t speak for us.

  • And I am personally telling you that this is absolute CRAP.

  • Brittany

    We could go back and forth all night, it doesn’t change how MY community feels. I can’t change YOUR perspective, but my church is HEAVILY involved with the special needs families, in fact we have a wing and staff that is dedicated to those who have special needs.

  • Brittany

    Like I just said above, we could go back and forth all night, but my community LOVES Night to Shine. I can’t speak for other communities.

  • Oh, honey, you’re just full of it! I AM DISABLED. YOU DO NOT SPEAK FOR US. These “special programs for the disabled” are absolute CRAP meant to make all y’all ablebodied people feel good about “being nice” to those poor crippled people.


  • Brittany

    We actually love everyone at my church? I don’t volunteer to make myself “feel good”, I do it because I have a genuine heart and care for these people. YOU cannot sit there and label me like I am that way. You don’t know me, you definitely don’t know my church, pastor, and community. Our special needs members of the church are heavily involved and are loved. The worship leader’s son has special needs…..don’t put me in the same category of other people who only volunteer to make themselves look/feel good. I don’t post about me volunteering…I don’t need validation/glorification from other people. I just DO it out of the goodness of my heart and soul.

  • And yet here you are, bragging about how much “good” you and your church are doing.

    You’re just like every other Christian that tries to “help” us.

  • Jennny

    A million upvotes WMDKitty, and another zillion. I was making food in the church kitchen when an excited person came and said ‘You must come and look at this..’ She took me to the edge of the hall where 3 friends, who happened to have Downs, were joining in the silly dancing along with everyone else at a church party..’Isn’t it nice to see them enjoying themselves?’, she said. Like they were freaks.

    Oh, and Brittany, anecdotal, but among the Learning Disabled I know, they dislike the label ‘Special Needs’, it is used less and less in the Uk. The LD want to merge in, not stand out as ‘special’, they’re all too aware of their ‘special’ limitations and handicaps.

  • The physically disabled aren’t terribly fond of it, either, thank you.

    And could Brittany be any more condescending?

  • Jennny

    Yup, my friend in a wheelchair does not want to attend a church where he’s told, ‘Do come, we’ve plenty of strong men who can hoist you in your chair up the steps at the door.’ Nor does he want to be told to use a side entrance and park, whether he likes it or not, by the front pew, because the aisle is too narrow for him to go further back, he’s on show ‘Aren’t we wonderful, we help the disabled?’ (Condescension writ large, as you say.) To be clear in case anyone doesn’t get it, he just wants to enter buildings like everyone else does.

  • A perfect example of how the religious use us as props. They love us as long as they can exploit us, but the second you speak up…

  • He wants inclusion

  • Jennny

    Oh Brittany, may I say, respectfully, it might just come across as a teensy bit arrogant..’I just do it out of the goodness of my heart and, cos you’re a x-tian..my soul?’ I was like you once, crazy to love bomb everyone ‘into the kingdom’, to save souls, to gain brownie points for when I got to ‘His Throne’….now I still volunteer and am so free and at peace….I have no ulterior, or even underhand motives when I do it…I find those who brag the most about ‘doing good’…probably are doing much less than those who do so without believing in an eternal reward for their efforts.

  • Right. Anyone that volunteers at church is doing it to show “gods love” which is a better way of saying “I’m doing this to get a ticket to heaven” – nice try, Brittany.

  • As do I.

    Though at this point, I’d settle for being left the hell alone. I’d rather be alone than put up with… well… that kind of thing.

  • Sophotroph

    Singling them out to give them an event FOR THEM makes it 100% clear that THEY are not US.

    Look at you right now telling us what their thoughts are. Not them. You.

  • Brittany

    I don’t volunteer to “get a ticket to heaven”….that’s not how that works anyway lol

  • Brittany

    I don’t volunteer to get a ticket to heaven….? That’s not how that works anyway……

  • Sophotroph

    No, there has been no back amd forth. You were told, and then proceeded to ignore your betters and spew ignorance.

    I particularly enjoy how you believe you can’t be rude according to rules you made up.

    It’s also fairly telling that your account has only 8 comments, all in this thread.

  • Jennny

    ‘Aaaah, bechod,’ as we say in Wales, poor little you! It’s called ‘commenting on the internet,’ you write your POV – which others of us find trite, condesending and inaccurate, so we say so. And, guess what, you have the right to reply to our serious POVs. And not sure how Katie can be accused of ‘hiding’ when anyone in the world can read her blog. (And I’d personally find it hard to ‘hide’ behind my vintage 20yo Nokia dumbphone.) Please don’t cry ‘Help, I’m being persecuted…’ that’s called whining, not generally regarded as an adult response on P/NR blogs and always done exclusively by x-tian snowflakes…!!!

  • And tryin ta shout down an actual, you know, disabled person who’s telling her she’s wrong.

  • I’m a disabled person, and I’m telling you to sit the fuck down and stop speaking for us.

    They won’t tell you to your face how they really feel because they know your kind.

  • Kitty – you know I got your back

  • Yeah, I’m a pretty visible person. I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flipbook and here. My life is a pretty open book. My archives are a story of my journey. I use to write about raising my son that is disabled and chronically ill. When he turned 5, I did an about-face. I realized his value as a person is worth more than everyone knowing every detail about his life. Now I advocate by writing about harmful practices used against children like my son.

    The fact is non-profits and churches consistently use people with disabilities as a way to feel good about themselves. They give them gifts and host parties for them without asking them what THEY want. How can Brittany claim to be a champion for that community – when non-profits and churches use their ableist point of view to give an ableist gift to someone – and then if someone that has a disability voices their concern, these same organizations say, “you aren’t being grateful.”

    I don’t know about you, but if someone gave me a gift or used my face as a way to promote their organization – I’d be pissed off. My son and people like him deserve better than this. We aren’t ungrateful for saying these proms are offensive. They are offensive. Period. Full stop.

  • Absofuckinglutely!

    Exploitation sucks!

  • Susan Zellers Avella

    The thing you are missing about Night to Shine is that you keep referring to “the children”. If you looked into the event, you would know the average attendee is in their 40’s. This year we had an 81 year old man and a 76 year old woman attend. Where else could they go to have a special night to get dressed up and dance? It isn’t a typical prom, it is a night for the adults to be pampered, showered with love, and catered to. They deserve to feel special and have a special event for them! In no way does this mean teens can’t attend their own prom as well as this event. One thing is for sure, there is no grinding on the dance floor like a typical high school dance, so I see that as quite a positive. I also don’t think you realize how some of these adults need the “extras” that come with this night such as medical staff present, firefighters and paramedics on the ready. My own buddy was a 55 year old man who had a rage attack before the night was over. It took a fireman to help calm him down and stop him from biting himself and banging his head into a concrete wall. This event is the best volunteer work I do and hearing anything negative about it breaks my heart, especially when you don’t even have the facts.

  • *sigh* Another ablebodied person lecturing disabled people on how to feel about how they’re treated. Thanks a lot…

  • Susan Zellers Avella

    Nice assumption.

  • Look, I AM disabled, and I’m telling you these events are patronizing and only held to make the ablebodied “hosts” feel like they’re “helping” us. The fact that you’ve been hoodwinked into thinking these things are “good” tells me all I need to know.

  • Susan Zellers Avella

    Support groups aren’t for everyone but should we cancel all of them because some people don’t feel like they benefit? There are many thousands of adults who do enjoy this event. It’s okay that you don’t.

  • A special needs prom is not a support group. It’s a way to say “Look at how awesome we are, doing this super special thing for disabled people! Yay, us!”

  • OH I know. And I also know you probably feel like you did something great. Look, everyone! I helped an adult with a disability. Look at how special I am. I showed them the love of Jesus. BARF. Save that crap for someone who cares.

  • Yep! She feels so good about herself from helping someone go to stupid event – for Jesus

  • these aren’t SUPPORT GROUPS!

  • Do you even hear how degrading it sounds to call a 55 year old man “your buddy” – I mean come on. We call my 6 year old – buddy. he’s a man.

  • Lucy

    And two months later, this lady has added no other comments to her account. Not one.

  • yep

  • Marie Wersant

    I think there’s a great deal of sweeping generalization in this article. Some churches have communities of their own that have lifelong family members. Many people would rather go to a church sponsored prom than a regular prom. I have seen some of the proms schools host where kids are dancing and grinding into one another in extremely vulgar positions. I much preferred the restraint of a church prom as a religious person.
    Part of this country is choice. If churches want to host special activities, it’s up to individuals if they want to go. No one is forcing anyone to attend. It’s an alternative to the regular prom and is usually more family oriented. For my severely autistic brother, he enjoyed these church events since they were more familiar surroundings with more familiar people that he has known all his life. He isn’t able to voice his opinion much on what he likes and dislikes due to verbal challenges. If you don’t want to go, don’t. But don’t take it away from those who get benefit from church sponsored proms, especially for those that are severely disabled, who don’t have the physical or mental abilitiy to choose. I know my brother’s physical cues (body language) and his limited language enough to know what he enjoys. This article assumes that all disabled people are able to voice their likes and dislikes, and that every church sponsoring a prom is doing it for their own feel good benefit. All sweeping generalizations.