Accepting Exceptions: Why Can’t We Do It for PWDs?

Hello readers,

I hope everyone had a marvelous Thanksgiving. If you are sufficiently awake from your turkey and pie comas, I have a new post for you.

I got the idea for this post while watching a Hallmark Christmas movie (yes, I’m a sucker for them). This one’s called A Christmas Melody and features a single mom and her nine-year-old daughter Emily. They’ve just moved from Los Angeles to Silver Falls, Ohio, in time for Silver Falls Elementary School’s annual Snowflake Pageant (kind of a Christmas-themed talent show). Emily loves to sing, so Mom asks if she can audition even though the family had not moved until after tryouts. The head of the PTA, a grown-up “mean girl,” is unsympathetic. “If I make an exception for your child, I have to make an exception for every child,” she says with a self-satisfied little grin.

As with so many of these situations, I understand her logic. There are situations in which it holds up. For example, if a child in Emily’s school who had known about the auditions but chose not to try out at the appointed time suddenly wanted to do so, yes. I could see saying “no exceptions.” If Little League is only for kids ages 6-12, it would be unfair to make an exception for a 13-year-old who was twice the size of the other kids and whose birth certificate clearly stated he was 13. If a school chooses to go peanut free because a high percentage of the kids have allergies, I could see saying, “All snacks/desserts absolutely must be peanut free.”

However, I question this idea we have that exceptions are always a bad thing, or always mean the person requesting them is an entitled little snot. For example, Emily didn’t know about the pageant, and it’s not like Mom could’ve called the school and made arrangements ahead of time–would it kill the PTA to let her try out, even if she didn’t get a part? If a child’s family does not celebrate Christmas, is it such an “exception” to acknowledge his or her holiday?

This is a particular conundrum for people with disabilities and their loved ones. It often starts in childhood. Let’s say Max is in the second grade, the year when handwriting starts becoming a major focus. Max has cerebral palsy, or another disability which makes his handwriting illegible and makes writing painful for him. However, he can type on the computer. Yet his teacher insists to Max’s parents that,

“Every child in my class must complete handwriting assignments. If I make an exception for your child, I have to make an exception for every child.” Meanwhile, Max’s classmates are expected to learn to type as well as write, because it’s part of technology. His classmates are rewarded with computer time, but Max is exempt because, “We don’t want him taking the easy way out.”

Another example: Ashlyn is in middle school. She has a sensory processing disorder (SPD) that makes eating certain foods unbearable. Her parents are not able to pack Ashlyn’s lunches, so Ashlyn must eat in the cafeteria. Her school follows a program that says children must eat X number of calories and X types of food each day. Leaving aside how ridiculous I think that is, these programs do exist. Ashlyn has tried to explain her SPD, as have her parents. The response they get is,

“If we make exceptions for your child…” You get it. “Plus, Ashlyn is too old to be a picky eater.” (By the way, I know a little girl with an SPD like this. It is far more than picky eating, just as other SPDs are far more than itchy clothing or other troubles. But SPDs continue to be highly misunderstood).

Last example. This one is partially ripped from the headlines of Disability Scoop. Sabine is a middle school student with Down Syndrome. Per IDEA and laws regarding least restrictive environment, Sabine is entitled to an education in a general ed classroom alongside peers without disabilities. Despite the family’s objections, the school continually pulls her out of general ed classes for several hours a week in a segregated classroom. The rationale given is, “This is how we educate students with needs like Sabine’s. If we make an exception…” Along with phrases like, “This is what is best” or “This is what Sabine’s evaluations indicate she will benefit from.” Never mind what Sabine or anybody else thinks.

This whole “exception” thing really burns me up, for a couple of reasons. One, exceptions are made all the time, for people without disabilities, for a number of reasons. The Jewish child in your kid’s class is allowed to go to recess with other kids instead of watching a Christmas movie, if he or she wants. A black high school student is given an alternate English assignment because he or she legitimately feels a book that uses the N word and other slurs is offensive. An adult invited to a wedding at which no vegetarian dishes are served is allowed to make an exception for him or herself by bringing food from home or speaking to the chefs ahead of time.

Yet, people with disabilities are “entitled” if they ask for exceptions. I’m not talking about reasonable modifications here, although those often get shot down, too. I’m talking more about alternatives that could be presented when reasonable modifications aren’t available. I’m talking about exceptions that can and should be made to ensure people with disabilities are afforded dignity, respect, and a level playing field.

In many cases, these exceptions don’t exist or are not allowed. The TAB world rationalizes, “We can’t make exceptions because it encourages entitlement/is the easy way out/is too hard.” They say people with disabilities cannot do the same things everyone else can–but in the same breath, they expect PWDs to do things one way, or not at all. Let’s return to the example of Max and the computer. His teacher could, and should, allow him to use the computer because it is his one means of legible handwriting and possibly passing that part of the curriculum. Yet he or she decides, “Well, majority rules, so like everyone else, Max should only get computer time when he has earned it.”

It’s yet another of the double standards PWDs confront and fight every day of their lives. Often, as is the case with families like Sabine’s, they lose the fight. Why? Because “the system,” whether that be the school, the college, the court, whatever, persists in thinking “fair” and “equal” means “everybody gets the same thing.” No–I cannot say this enough. Fair and equal only happen when everyone gets what they need to level the playing field. It’s common sense, so why don’t we use it?

Besides that, when the TAB world continually refuses to make exceptions for PWDs, they label them with more negative stereotypes. As in, “People with disabilities are lazy because they’d rather use the dishwasher than wash dishes/eat out than cook/type than write. They are entitled and spoiled because all they do is ask for modifications and exceptions. They will never be like us, so it’s better if we segregate them.”

Wow. It blows my mind that people would rather do that to their fellow human beings, than make slight exceptions that could level the playing field. Think about it. If we made exceptions when we needed to, what might we learn about PWDs?

Perhaps we’d finally see the truth about them–that they are capable, can learn, can function, and can contribute. Perhaps we’d learn these people are exceptional, not because of disabilities but because they are humans with whom we share our world.


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