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The Systematic Exclusion of Students With Disabilities at End-of-School-Year Events

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.

This month, as students across the nation finish up their school year, we’ve heard another round of reminders of the challenges and outright discrimination students with disabilities face at school, places that claim on the surface to provide opportunities for all young people.

We learned, for example, of a teacher who gave a “most annoying” award to an autistic student. At another school, an autistic student received a certificate for being “most likely to get lost in a crowd” signed by not one, but five of his teachers. The principal claimed he couldn’t do anything about it because the teachers involved were already on summer vacation. Too often, schools and educators get away with these harmful incidents.

And these are the few stories that made headlines this year, but hundreds of families have a similar story to tell. Like my friend AngÄ“ Wright, who invited her extended family to watch her fifth grade daughter participate in her “promotion” ceremony to middle school. As the children walked in the room and parents had the opportunity to take pictures, Wright’s daughter and another special education student were kept in the back of the room.

The school principal commenced the ceremony without the two students who were later taken in through a side door and made to sit on chairs away from the rest of the fifth graders who were singing as part of the program. The principal never acknowledged his mistake or apologized for the exclusion, but rather blamed the child.

Or my friend, Crystal Galvan, whose daughter was excluded from an end-of-year field trip to a water park because the school could not provide someone to assist her at the park. Her daughter was excluded from the end-of-year field trip the previous year as well.

Sue Brown’s daughter has Down syndrome and won a scholarship, yet the school excluded her from the honors convocation where all students who received scholarships were acknowledged.

Or Janelle Allen, who found out all fifth graders had a dance to celebrate the end of the elementary years, but her daughter with disabilities had not been invited. Allen found out after the dance had taken place.

Last year, my daughter with Down syndrome and all other students receiving special education were not included in their yearbook. My main question to the principal was, “If you knew the special education students were missing from the yearbook, why did you still make the choice to distribute them?” The response I got claimed the school had realized the exclusion too late in the day, some kids already had their yearbooks and there was nothing they could do.

I challenged this by asking, “If you had realized that all students of color were missing from the yearbook, would you have left the children take them home because you found out too late in the day, some kids already had their yearbooks and there was nothing you could do?” Of course not. So why is it OK and acceptable when it is the special education students who go missing in the yearbook? The school rectified the mistake, but it did not undo the fact it had happened.

These negative disability attitudes are so prevalent it would be hard to find a school where an entire staff is aware of disability issues and proactively works to create a culture where everyone belongs and are seen as whole people with hopes, dreams and the same capacity — and right — as every student to have a wide range of enriching experiences at school.

Part of what’s so heartbreaking about some of these stories is even the teachers who should be most knowledgeable about disability issues — special education teachers — are part of the problem. Why are teachers and educators overlooking, ignoring or ridiculing our kids? What we need are teachers and educators who recognize our kids have the same value and rights as any neurotypical or able-bodied child.

I am afraid until our kids are considered as valuable and important as typical children, these “oversights” at school events that crop up each year will keep happening; perhaps not always purposefully, but inadvertently. But isn’t that just as problematic?

Not including our kids because someone forgot or didn’t think it was worth the effort to make accommodations to include them is not that much different than not wanting them there at all. Kids with disabilities have feelings too and deserve an equal experience with their peers.

The truth is, while we have made great strides for our children to be included in the classroom, it doesn’t mean our children are welcome. These school-related incidents highlight ignorance still prevails in our society, which leads to a systematic devaluation of the lives of people with disabilities.

Negative disability attitudes are so prevalent and engrained they don’t even register as wrong or discriminatory. This is how a teacher can overlook or dismiss the absence of kids with disabilities. It is why at first glance, the response to discrimination is, “Too bad this happened.” How is it that people so easily “forget” about our kids? How is it that a teacher thinks it is funny to give a derogatory “award” to a child as a memory of the year they left behind?

Students with disabilities are as human and worthy as any other student. They have a right to learn, to enjoy friendships and to be celebrated. While their accomplishments may be different from those of their peers, they were achieved with the same amount of hard work and determination. That deserves acknowledgement and celebration.

When schools plan end-of-year events, the needs of all students should be taken into account. It is not acceptable for schools to leave out any member of their student body simply because they have different needs. To me, instances of exclusion or oversight are inexcusable. 

Inclusion at school is much more than allowing our kids to sit in a class with typical peers. Inclusion is an attitude. For as long as schools and educators see our children as burdens, inclusion cannot successfully take place.

Schools, you know better. You have to be better.

Our kids are not disposable, they are not invisible and they have the same rights as every other student to be included in end-of-the-year celebrations.

This is about social justice, because an entire population is consistently and systematically discriminated against. 

Our kids with disabilities matter. It’s time for schools to recognize that. 

Getty image by Wavebreakmedia