It’s prom season for high schools across the United States. Pictures of teens in elegant ball gowns and expensive tuxedos posing with flowers and limousines are flooding news websites and social media streams. Sprinkled among the smiles and sequins, though, is the occasional story about the selfless teens who benevolently decided to take a student with a disability as their prom date.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had to worry about prom, but my grandson Elijah is a toddler now and prom is still in his future. As glad as I am to see so many able-bodied teens taking teens with disabilities to prom, I don’t want this to be newsworthy. Teens with disabilities aren’t novelties, and befriending one shouldn’t be novel and newsworthy.
People with disabilities don’t exist for the rest of us to feel inspired. In a poignant TED talk, Stella Young, a journalist who uses a power chair for mobility, told the audience that she doesn’t need anyone’s help or sympathy, and she certainly doesn’t want to be held up as a model citizen for able-bodied people to think to themselves, “wow, if she can do what she does, so can I.”
Students with Cerebral Palsy especially don’t want to be looked on pitifully or as pets. Many are active members of their communities, participating in events and making friends as their conditions allow. Several people with CP have taken to blogging and vlogging to normalize and humanize their disabilities but also illuminate how difficult it is to navigate a world designed for able-bodied individuals.
As Elijah grows up, I don’t want one of his classmates to take him to prom out of pity or as a grand gesture of selflessness and altruism. Elijah has a wonderful personality. He loves to play and laugh and interact with people. When he grows up, I want someone to take him to prom because they’re friends, not because it’s a kind gesture. I’m sure he’ll be giddy to pick out flowers and bowties, and I can already picture his face lighting up when the DJ plays his favorite song. I don’t ever want to see him as a prop or the object of charity, especially at his prom.