This Is What A Child With A Disability Looks Like, Right? Wrong.
Take a good look at this child, my son, Max. He’s walking his new wooden pet duck on a day trip our family took to Lewes Ferry, Delaware. Can you guess what his disability is?
Now look at this cutie, Zaiden, hanging with a truck o’ pumpkins back in October. Can you guess what his disability is?
Of course you can’t: It’s not possible to tell what a person’s disability is just by looking. As it turns out, both boys have cerebral palsy. But even that still doesn’t tell you much about their special needs. Some kids with cerebral palsy walk; some don’t. Some kids with cerebral palsy are cognitively impaired; some aren’t. Some kids with cerebral palsy have trouble using all their limbs; some have trouble using just one hand or one leg.
Looks don’t tell you anything. Labels don’t tell you anything. And yet, that’s something many people just don’t understand when it comes to those with disabilities.
Zaiden is the center of a storm that’s been brewing since late December when his mom, Amber, wheeled him into a gift store called Ellie’s Choice in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. According to Amber, she was asked by Ellie to leave Zaiden in the front of the store as she shopped; the store does not allow strollers since the aisles are narrow. Amber says she informed Ellie that the stroller was used as a wheelchair. “If I wanted to shop, I would have had to leave my 2.5 year old in the front, alone, like a dog you tie up outside,” the mom later wrote to me. Amber and Zaiden left the store.
Amber will be filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice as she believes what happened violates the Americans With Disabilities Act, which lists specific requirements for businesses and the accommodation of wheelchairs. In an email sent out from Ellie to those who complained, she wrote: “Unfortunately our business is in the Historic District and does not have handicap accessibility. The building is over 100 years old and is on the National Historic Register.” A staffer at the ADA Information Line referred to me to point 4.2 (d) in the ADA, in the section about Historic Preservation. It states, “Access shall be provided to all levels of a building or facility…whenever practical.” Which seems like it could give a business listed on the historic register some legal wiggle room. Ultimately, it will be up to the authorities to weigh on on whether the law was broken.
I called the store and got one of the owners on the phone, Ed. He said the store would soon be issuing a statement, and I will update this post when I receive that. “We meant no harm,” he emphasized. We chatted for a bit, and he noted that Zaiden’s stroller did not “look like a wheelchair.”
“He is 2 years old, and that is his form of a wheelchair,” I said.
The email sent out by Ellie’s Choice to parents who complained also notes “This woman came in with her child with what looked like a stroller….” And this is the perception problem that exists for those who have disabilities: People think they know what a disability looks like, or even what the equipment should look like.
But you cannot tell just by looking.
My son is not what a child with a disability looks like.
Zaiden is not what a child with a disability looks like.
That’s because there is no one way to look, act or behave when it comes to disabilities. And the fact that so many people out there don’t get this makes me worry for the future of Max, Zaiden and others like them.
Laws can help enforce the accommodation of people with disabilities. But until the world gets past the stereotypes, perceptions and misconceptions of what a person with a disability “is,” there will never really be true acceptance or accommodation of people with disabilities.