As they say, a photo speaks a thousand words.
And when viewing the above class picture, a few words definitely come to my mind — discrimination, isolation, stigma, and ignorance pop into my head rather quickly.
When a Vancouver woman received her son’s second grade class photo, she immediately hid it away in shock and disbelief.
In the photo, the students and teacher line up in three rows, but her son Miles is isolated from the group.
On the far right edge, Miles sits in his wheelchair, separated from the rest of his classmates by an empty space. And although he is removed from his classmates, the sweet 7-year-old beams for the camera as he attempts to be closer to his friends.
While she can hardly stand to look at it, a distraught Anne Belanger is overcome with anger and sadness as she looks at the photo of her son.
“Look at the angle that he was in,” she tells The Province. “He’s ostracized. He wants to be part of the gang so much.”
Miles’ condition called spinal muscular atrophy – which does not affect his cognitive abilities – is a genetic disease that attacks nerve cells in the spinal cord, causing muscles throughout the body, especially in the arms and legs, to weaken.
The 7-year-old boy is faced with more challenges than any young child should have to deal with, said his father Don Ambridge. Which makes the above photo that much more heartbreaking.
Miles’ proud papa said he felt humiliated for his son when he first saw the photo.
“For some reason it makes me feel even worse that he’s so happy in the picture,” he said. “I think it’s because he’s still innocent … He’s still naive to how other people can treat him.”
The distraught parents have decided to keep the photo from their son. “[Miles is] profoundly aware that he’s different than his peers,” his mother said, adding that she thinks he would be deeply hurt.
After the heartbroken parents asked for an apology – and got quite a bit of back-and-forth – the school principal and photography team have finally admitted they were in the wrong. “This will be a learning experience for this photographer,” a rep for the photographer said.
Regardless of the delayed apology, Miles’ parent say that the photo is discrimination as it was taken by an adult, not a child. Further, it is a reflection of a society that still attaches stigma to disability.
“Kids can be cruel but this comes from adults, which is even worse,” she said. “Adults should know better.”
This story is almost too heartbreaking to report. Is this truly still happening in this day and age?
It reminds us all that taking a stand against prejudice can be difficult in a society that isn’t always accepting and welcoming of people with special needs. After all, a child with special needs deserves respect, kindness and inclusion just like any other child.
While this might seem obvious, it is often not the case and many children with disabilities – and their parents – feel judged and isolated. And not to mention overwhelmed!
Prior to motherhood and blogging, I was a social worker within the field of disability. I learned not only about the struggles facing children with disabilities, but the many roadblocks they come across in society.
From the stares, to the exclusion, to the isolation, to the financial struggles, to the learned helplessness — it can be a lonely existence.
Click here for a few tips on how to support families who are living with special needs.