The Segregation Stops Here

Happy June, readers!

I hope everyone had a great Memorial Day, and took time to remember and appreciate fallen veterans as they kicked off summer with family and friends. Your kids and teens might still be in school, but summer vacation will be here in a blink. New activities will fill your schedules, and that’s great. But for people with disabilities and their families, many of those activities will likely be segregated–that is, “for the disabled only.”

Now, you all know how I feel about segregation based on disability. We’ve talked about it. But one thing we haven’t discussed, is one that occurred to me recently. Disability is the only difference that makes segregation okay. Most people don’t even call it “segregation” or “separation.” They assume that because disability = limitations, separation, segregation, and seclusion are sensible and even benevolent solutions. Yet, if the same rules applied to people of other differences and diversities, it would be called “segregation.” Advocacy groups would shriek nonstop until the segregation stopped. Once again, the double standard is mind-boggling.

I got the idea for this post after seeing a national news report about a school where students campaigned to hold a Muslims-only prom. To wit, this prom was meant only for female Muslim attendees. These students’ branch of Islam does not permit unchaperoned interaction with the opposite sex, so the girls felt they’d be left out of the prom unless they had one just for them. A lot of people commented on the story, saying the idea was ridiculous. And I have to say, I agree.

It’s not that a rationale doesn’t exist; one does. These girls are from a different culture and different religion than the majority, and some of them may feel uncomfortable attending a traditional prom. What I have a problem with, is effectively segregating these girls because of their culture and religion. In this case, are they choosing segregation? To a point, yes. But in allowing the girls to do so, the school is saying, “We would rather keep one group entirely separate than teach them, and others, how to function together. We would rather hold a prom that defeats the entire purpose of a prom, than provide alternatives, such as culturally sensitive chaperoning.” And a lot of people, non-Muslims and Muslims alike, see that message as harmful, perhaps malevolent.

Now, I am not a Muslim and I’m not from an ultra-conservative culture, so maybe I don’t understand all the ins and outs of that example. I’m not trying to be insensitive toward anyone. But I want to use the Muslim only prom example to paint a contrast. I bet you know where I’m going here.

That’s right. Contrast that with “special needs proms.” Schools all over the country hold them, rationalizing that, “Disabled students need a prom, too.” But at the same time, they’re effectively saying, “These students are too disabled, too ‘special,’ to go to prom with any students except ‘their own kind.'” Yet, nobody ever protests. Nobody ever says, “That’s segregation,” or if they do, they’re in the minority. At times, even disability advocates are persuaded to back down from that stance. Teachers, administrators, what have you, use a lot of poor rationalizing to keep the segregation going. You might hear things like, “We do this because these students have behavior issues” or, “We do this because these students have poor social skills.” Every now and then, you hear things like, “Without the special ed prom, these students would not be asked/would not get to participate.” Advocates argue for a while, but in the end, a lot of them shut up and back down. No one else sees this issue the way they do, so they figure, what’s the point?

That last rationale turns my stomach–but then, so do the other and more frequent ones. Segregated dances, proms, camps, trips–they’re all presented as a way for people with disabilities to experience things everyone else gets to experience because they’re alive. But think about it. If the experience is “disabled only,” how real is it? How much authenticity is sacrificed for “issues,” real and imagined? And again–why is this okay for PWDs, but not other groups? Imagine what would happen if teachers, camp directors, etc. said, “This camp is only for black children. White families don’t let them participate in activities with their kids. Besides, “our” kids are more likely to exhibit bad behavior or use Ebonics, which keeps them from socializing properly.”

Please, please, please. Someone tell me I’m not the only one who sees the glaring flaw in that logic.

The major argument I get when presenting my case on this issue is, “But those kids and adults really are different. They need modifications to participate.” Okay. I’ll buy that. I’ve been there. I need modifications to do things, especially in summer when most popular activities are outdoors and physical. But I would be downright miserable stuck on some “outing” or in a “day care program” “for the disabled.” Why? Not because of the people themselves, but because I would feel negatively singled out. The “modifications” argument is not an argument for segregation. If anything, it’s a call for the TAB population to wake up, think about disability, and provide modifications in real, non-segregated settings. It’s an opportunity for PWDs to interact with their peers who don’t have disabilities, and to truly learn skills needed to function in a world where disability is not the majority.

If you still aren’t convinced, or if you’d like to elaborate when talking about this issue, let me wrap up with a few brief bullet points. Segregation of PWDs has been the norm for decades, nay, centuries. It is assumed that PWDs, especially those whose disabilities are severe, cannot benefit without it. But here’s a dose of reality. Here’s what segregation–because that’s what it is–teaches PWDs and their peers without disabilities:

  • Modifications are difficult or impossible to make; it’s not worth it.
  • People with disabilities are fundamentally unlike everyone else. They have no concept of what it’s like to live in a non-disabled world, and even with effort, cannot/will not learn. (This is actually what whites used to say about non-whites. Didn’t fly then, won’t fly now). This rationale, conscious or not, teaches PWDs and temporarily able-bodied people to focus on differences and “special needs,” not what makes them equal.
  • People with disabilities only belong in “disabled” settings. This one is particularly dangerous, because the “disability bubble” does not exist in every situation. I’ve read testimonials of people with disabilities who’ve been segregated in school, at leisure activities, and in the workplace their whole lives. When they do leave those settings, they report feeling lost, unimportant, and incompetent. Children who spend their school careers in segregated classrooms can’t even answer questions like, “What grade are you in?” “Special” students are often lumped together; grades and skill levels do not exist. Therefore, students don’t know where they are, academically and socially speaking. They don’t know what’s expected of them or how their peers act. Therefore, they continue to act as anomalies, which perpetuates the myth that segregation is necessary.
  • People with disabilities are scary/unrelated to anyone or anything in my world. This is perhaps the most harmful thing segregation teaches people who don’t have disabilities. I’ll admit, sometimes it is a little disconcerting to encounter a person with a severe disability, or a person whose disability is extremely obvious. But the reason it’s disconcerting is, those people are almost never seen in a non-disabled setting. If they are, aides, coaches, and caregivers often accompany them. People end up interacting with the caregiver, not the person with the disability. The PWD is assumed to be unable to interact, and the myth goes on.
  • The real world will never work for you. This is a biggie, and the myth that scared me the most growing up. That’s right; even with a mild disability, you don’t escape all the pitfalls of segregation. For a long time, I struggled with the idea that TAB people would never fully understand me or know what I needed. I wasn’t as segregated as some peers, but because segregation existed, I wondered how long it would be before it was considered an option for me. I still struggle at times with the notion that I just don’t belong in this world–and I spent most of my time in the “mainstream.” Think about how a person segregated for most or all their lives must feel.
  • Your differences are bad. Disability is just as much a part of diversity as skin color or religion, sexual or political affiliation, body type or national origin. Yet when we segregate PWDs–and only that group–we effectively say, “Your differences are too different. They aren’t worth celebrating or embracing, and neither are you. Stay over here with the other disabled people, so we can more easily deal with you.” (And that’s another thing, by the way. We’ve fooled ourselves into thinking segregation is for the benefit of PWDs, but at the end of the day, whose life is better for it? Who is actually happy? Right–not the person you segregated).

Yes, there is camaraderie in associating with people inside your group. That’s why I went to summer camp for kids with many types of disabilities as a kid. It’s why I go to conferences specifically for Christian women. It’s why I get together with fellow writers, and why I seek out people with milder disabilities. Occasionally–perhaps often–we need the unique understanding that our tribe, or members of sub-tribes, can give us like no one else can. But there is a major difference between choosing camaraderie, and being forcibly segregated. There is a difference between choosing participation in group-specific settings, and being told, “This is the place/group/activity meant for you. Stay there.”

Segregation hurts, folks. It hurt in the past, and it hurts now. And for PWDs, it doesn’t have to be as obvious as, “Sit in the back of the bus.” It can be as benevolent as, “I know you’re having trouble making friends; have you tried Best Buddies?” (Another organization, by the way, whose benevolent intentions have turned PWDs into projects).

Segregation is still a barrier. Let’s call it what it is, and after we’ve done that, let’s break it down, for good.



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