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.
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.