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.