A little boy. A photograph. A firestorm of controversy. By now most of us within the disability community are very aware of the story of the class photo of a young boy sitting in his wheelchair, off to one side, the very picture of thoughtless exclusion. When I wrote about my take on the second picture, it seemed that I got a sense of the intensity of opinion about exclusion, inclusion and the variety of ways that people saw the same pictures.
From comments on my blog, and elsewhere, and from emails to me personally, I found my point of view either lauded or soundly criticised. The criticism usually was about my point that the wheelchair was not in the second picture, that they could easily taken a photo which him included while he still was in his chair. I'd like to address 2 of the concerns brought forward to me. I've waited a few days because I want to chat, not shout, about the issues raised by this picture.
The most common thing was, "It was his choice!" And yes, I read that the boy had made this choice. I also read that his family had kept the swirling controversy away from him, they didn't want him pulled into the media frenzy created by the story. On one hand, that's good, on another hand, I'm not so sure it is. I''m guessing all the kids in the class we're so protected from the information. It would be tragic if he was the only one that didn't know why the second picture was being taken. However, back to the point. If he is going to make a decision, shouldn't it have been an informed decision? If information is kept back from someone, purposefully, then any decision they make is, surely, suspect.
Further, "It's his decision to make!" is a fine argument. But ... has everyone forgotten, he's a little boy. Making decisions requires assertion and full understanding of options. Many children, in general, and many, many children with disabilities, are taught compliance, taught to do what they are told, taught not to be a problem to others. For him to have insisted to stay in the chair and that a different kind of picture to be taken would have required an incredible amount of self assurance and assertive skills. I'm guessing that a large percentage of adults would not have the ability to do just that. It's a lot to ask of a little boy. It would also have required him to understand 'inclusion' at a deep level and further, understand his 'right' to make the request. The first picture kind of indicates that maybe he hasn't had a lot of practise at inclusion or a lot of experience of having his needs and rights respected. Just saying.
I am writing this because I have seen so many travesties of care done in the name of 'choice.'
I believe in choice, but I also believe that for choice to be choice, there needs to be several things: self esteem; assertion skills; information involving the choice'; an understanding of options; practise and support.
"The wheelchair isn't important, he is important, he is more than his wheelchair." This is the other theme that came forward. It may surprise you, I agree. With everything said. So why did I write about the second picture having him out of the chair and on the bleacher. Well, because it was the SECOND picture. If this had been the first picture there would have been no controversy, no outrage, no debate. All good. I would have even said, if I'd seen it, that I was pleased that they had looked for a way to include the little boy.
But it was the SECOND picture. A picture that came after the one that was seen round the world. It was the picture that would 'fix' the problem. In the SECOND picture, the wheelchair matters. It certainly matters to me, a wheelchair user. I would think it mattered to many. The SECOND picture showed a boy included, but the inclusion happened when HE adapted to the needs of the photographer by attempting to rid himself of his difference to be more like his peers. Adaption is HIS work. Inclusion requires HIS effort. No one but him did anything different. No one but him was made to change. This was the SECOND picture - there should have been thought about what it meant and what was being said - the first one had been seen by the world, the second one would be too.
So, to be clear, I don't give a bull crap if people with disabilities are photographed anyway they want, in or out of a wheelchair, with or without a cane or a walker. It's none of my business. Pictures are pictures. But in this case it wasn't just a picture was it. It was to be a 'solution' picture ... a picture of 'inclusion.' It meant more. And I believe it failed in every way.
I have been cautious here not to use the boys name and I certainly don't want to be critical of the family in any way. I'm trying to write a general piece about a specific situation because I think there is much to learn from the two pictures and what happened between takes.
They say a picture says a picture says a thousand words. In this case I believe that these pictures spawned millions of words - and any discussion of inclusion and of sensitivity to the needs of others is an excellent thing.