Cerebral Palsy at Prom

Alan Rasof CP PromsIt’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.

Representation of Cerebral Palsy in Media

RepresentationAs of late, the importance of representation in the media has been a popular rallying cry for minorities of all types. Women call on the Bechdel test to determine the level of female representation in movies and TV shows. Last year, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite drew attention to the dearth of people of color eligible to win the prestigious acting award.

Calling for better minority representation has also extended to those with disabilities. TV shows like Degrassi and Glee have depicted young people with physical handicaps who participate in everyday life with friends who care about them, include them, and are sensitive to their limitations. Arab comedian Maysoon Zayid has performed all over the globe doing stand-up related to her life with cerebral palsy. In her TED talk, she described how she auditioned for the role of a person with cerebral palsy but was turned down in favor of an able-bodied actor. When she asked why she wasn’t chosen, the casting director told her they were worried she wouldn’t be able to perform some of the actions for which the script called. This baffled her — if she, a woman with cerebral palsy, couldn’t perform the actions of the script, maybe the script didn’t accurately portray life with cerebral palsy.

Some children’s authors and illustrators have decided to take the battle for representation upon themselves and pen books about children with special needs and disabilities to help young people learn the facts about handicaps and normalize the idea of having friends and peers who look and behave differently. Especially for cerebral palsy, which can vary in severity and symptoms, representation in children’s literature can help able-bodied children recognize and normalize the appearance of the disability in their fellow classmates.

Shaila Abdullah wrote a book in 2014 called My Friend Suhana: A Story of Friendship and Cerebral Palsy to help children understand how to be a good friend to someone living with CP. In the book, an able-bodied narrator Aanyah shows how she loves and cares for her nonverbal best friend Suhana, who lives with CP, and how Suhana has just as many abilities as disabilities. The author and her 10-year-old daughter (on whom the narrator is based) volunteer weekly at a center for children with special needs, so the two of them wanted to demonstrate in a book that love and friendship transcends disability. This heartwarming books is a must-read for any child to help foster compassion and understanding.

Aaron Philip also wrote an autobiographical story called This Kid Can Fly: It’s about Ability (NOT Disability about his own life with Cerebral Palsy. A 14-year-old African American native of the Bronx, Aaron is a disability activist and advocate for helping the general public understand the reality of living with CP and how to help others with the condition. His memoir, written with the help of Tonya Bolden, delineates his life story and how he has embraced his different life.

By including books with a healthy representation of children with disabilities in schools, libraries, and homes, we can help normalize CP and make children more open and compassionate.