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Yes, Kids With Disabilities Belong Wherever 'Typical' Kids Belong

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.

Last Saturday, Stella Turnbull, a 12-year-old who has a disability (the children’s version of Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS), won a 4H competition with her goat. However, not everyone was happy with Stella’s win. The Turnbull family received an anonymous letter stating they “should be ashamed.” Why? Because they let Stella participate and she took the win from the kids who — according to the anonymous author — deserved it.

Because of Stella’s physical disabilities, her family created the necessary accommodations for her participation in the 4H competition, which included building a platform attached to her wheelchair so Stella could safety walk the goat and not run over it with her chair. The goat placed its front hooves on the platform and walked along Stella using its back hooves, something Stella had to train her goat to do, which took time, energy, patience and many late nights of practice. In the letter Stella’s mom, Sarah Turnbull, posted on Facebook, the anonymous writer took issue with Stella’s participation and her use of the goat cart, writing in part:

If your child cannot care for an animal by his or herself then she didn’t have any business showing a goat claiming it was hers. That is unfair to the kids who truly put in the work and effort to daily feed, walk and groom their animals for a project. … Don’t take away the rights of those who truly want an award and work for it. Stop trying to make your child normal!

I understand why some people could see this as an “unfair” win. After all, it is not uncommon for our kids with disabilities to get praised for simply existing. These “pity” awards (because they do happen) make other people feel good about themselves and rarely have anything to do with the child. The assumption, however, that every time a child with a disability wins something it’s a result of a “pity,” is problematic.

Kids with disabilities are capable, they have gifts and talents and they work just as hard (if not harder) than their non-disabled and neurotypical peers to achieve their goals. Kodi Lee, the autistic and blind contestant on “America’s Got Talent” who got a golden buzzer, for example, earned his place on the show because of his talent. Just because Stella used a platform — and had to train the goat to use it — doesn’t mean it was “easy” compared to leading a goat with a halter. Different? Yes, but not less effort.

The letter sent to Stella’s family, keeping in mind the anonymous author likely had no idea how much work it took Stella to show up with her goat, is presumptuous. They discredit not only Stella, but the 4H competition’s judges — shouldn’t this person be complaining to the judges if they felt the award was unfair instead of taking it up with Stella’s family? But we know why this person sent the letter to the Turnbulls. It is because, as clearly stated, they want Stella’s parents to stop trying to make her “normal.” Or in other words, a child with a disability doesn’t belong among “typical” children.

That’s the clincher.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. The number of times others think our children with disabilities “don’t belong” are numerous. Over a year ago, a dance studio refused to teach my daughter with Down syndrome solely based on her diagnosis. The owners were not even willing to meet her in person or have a trial run to see how she did in a class. They simply stated kids “like her” did not belong in the studio.

We see it when community events for children are hosted in inaccessible places.

We see it when our kids with disabilities are excluded from end-of-school-year events.

We see it when our kids are not invited to parties or left out of field trips because “there wasn’t anyone available to help.”

The excuses to not have our kids join their “typical” peers are numerous. And it is disheartening.

We have fought so hard for true inclusion, but we still have a long way to go. After all, it was not long ago parents of kids with disabilities were encouraged to send their children to institutions, kids with disabilities could not attend school, and when they finally were able to, they were placed in segregated classrooms. Even now, many of us have to fight for inclusion and to remind others kids with disabilities have just as much value as their “typical” peers.

As part of that fight, often we are the ones who end up making allowances and compromises just so our kids can be included. We carry our kids up several flights of stairs, then come back to carry up  their adaptive equipment. We take time off from work so our kids can participate in their field trips. We host a party just because our kids have been left out of too many.

What hurts most, though, is we are expected to carry the burden of inclusion ourselves and be ever so thankful we are allowed to do so to be included in some way.

You should be thankful your kid got to go on the field trip you had to provide a helper for.

You should be thankful your child got invited at the last minute and it took you 30 minutes to carry your child and their chair to the floor where the event was taking place, with nobody offering to help.

You should be thankful your child is allowed in the same classroom as their peers.

You should be thankful.

And then when someone complains and says, “Stop trying to make your child ‘normal,” we smile anyway because many people feel that way and you don’t want them to think you are the “angry parent of the disabled kid.” Just play nice and smile, some people don’t get it. But that takes a toll.

So I say it’s time we turn things around, because why are we the ones who always have to compromise, walk away or end up having our children be excluded?

If you don’t like my kid is in the same ballet class as yours, go to a different dance school.

If you don’t like my kid is in the same competition as yours, you can always pull your kid from the event.

If you don’t like that my kid does things differently, go home.

Or, we can acknowledge that all kids belong and work together to make it happen. How about we practice real inclusion?

And that’s the thing, inclusion is not a system or a building, it is an attitude. So many people still don’t understand our kids with disabilities are just as valuable as any other kid and they deserve the opportunity to participate in the world like anybody else.

Our kids belong. There is no “but” or “unless.” They belong. It’s as simple as that. They belong in our families, in our schools and in our communities. It’s about time others catch up with the times and let go of ignorant stereotypes surrounding disability. It is time others begin to truly understand our children are capable by taking the opportunity to witness their individuality, full humanity and potential.

I only wish my daughter, and other kids like her, did not have to go through so much heartache before they find the joy.

So the next time you see a child with a disability in a competition (or anywhere), remember there is room for all kids. Kids with disabilities belong and their merits are to be recognized and respected, not because they have a disability, but because they are one of the kids.

Header image via Sarah Turnbull