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What to Keep in Mind When You See the Story of the Barber With an Autistic Child

Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem.¬†Ellen Stumbo,¬†The Mighty’s parenting editor,¬†explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

The picture of¬†Franz Jakob laying on the floor while giving a haircut to 6-year-old Wyatt Lafreniere, who is on the autism spectrum, has gone viral. You’ve probably seen several news outlets covering the story as a “feel good” story.

As the parent of two children with disabilities, I am thankful for the people who are willing to adapt for my children, rather than expecting my kids to adapt to them.

But there is a problem in how we are framing these stories. From where I stand, it appears everyone believes Jakob, the barber from Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, is an extraordinary person for extending kindness to a child with a disability. He is touted as a hero for doing his job in a way that worked for Wyatt.

Yes, not every barber might¬†be willing to get on the floor to cut a child’s hair, but Jakob did. I suspect Jakob is a kind person, and he would have done this for any child, not just for a child with a disability.

As a matter of fact, I suspect if he had been on the floor with a “typical” child, the story would not have made the news. And that is really the point, isn’t it? It is only news because the child¬†is autistic, and we still live in a world that sees disability as undesirable, “less than,” and where only “extraordinary people” are able to show kindness. A world where people with disabilities are used as inspiration for others and as feel good stories. It is the able-bodied person rescuing the disabled person, rather than one human being being kind to another (fully) human being.¬†People with disabilities are rarely given full humanity and respected as such, especially in the media.

The issue is not that Jakob is exceptional. The problem is there are a lot of people who do not consider people with disabilities as valuable human beings who deserve dignity and respect.

I also suspect Jakob did not think twice when he got on the floor; he runs a business and he was getting paid to cut the child’s hair. He did it in a way that worked for his client, and that is a sign of a well-run, professional business¬†with a philosophy of doing whatever it takes to serve their patrons well. I do wish more businesses were as accommodating as Jakob’s, I really do, because sometimes our kids are turned away from services.

I would want Jakob to cut my child’s hair if I had a child who needed someone willing to work with their sensory issues. Of course I would. But¬† I would not think of him as a “special kind of person,” but rather as a creative and talented barber.

Jakob’s story mirrors the viral video of a young cashier at Chick-Fil-A who used sign language to communicate with a customer. The customer is a young lady with a disability who uses sign language. The video and stories accompanying it are framed the same way: “amazing young lady using sign language for customer with a disability.” We have another “hero” for being kind to another human being.

At my local Chick-Fil-A one of the cashiers speaks Spanish. When he serves Spanish-speaking customers, he speaks to them in Spanish. You don’t see his story¬†go viral. The difference? In the first story, someone was being nice to¬†a person with a disability who communicated with sign. People with disabilities are often used as inspiration¬†for able-bodied readers. Their humanity is lost in the narratives.

So when you see these types of stories shared in the news, think of this:

1. Is the¬†disabled person’s name mentioned and is that person humanized? Often, these stories focus on the “amazing” able-bodied people doing nice things for a¬†person with a disability. Sometimes we get the name and age of the disabled person, but mainly we only know them as a diagnosis. That is dehumanizing.

2. Did the child or adult with a disability give consent for their picture and story to be publicly shared?

3. Is the story framed under the narrative of “the able-bodied hero rescuing the person with a disability?”

4. Would this be newsworthy if it happened between two able-bodied people?

I don’t want to spread the narrative that children with disabilities are hard to love and “bothersome” and¬†only a few “special people” would be willing to step in and enter into their world.

Kids with disabilities are valuable and precious human beings.¬†They are lovable, and entering into their world is not “extra work,” it’s simply life.

Editor’s note: If you are wondering how to help make haircuts easier for¬†your child on the spectrum, here are a few¬†suggestions from our Mighty community:

7 Tips to Help Your Son on the Autism Spectrum With Haircuts

5 Ways to Help Children With Autism Have a Great Haircut