Happiness On The Side

It is enough to put a lump in your throat. The little body, hands folded politely in lap. The dress-up clothes, proudly worn. The big smile, gamely displayed. The gentle incline of his little head, trying to close the distance between the rest of his body and his classmates.

Miles Ambridge is seven years old, a second grader in New Westminster, British Columbia. He has spinal muscular atrophy, a potentially fatal genetic disease that attacks the nerve cells that communicate with your voluntary muscles. The disease has no cure.

Because the muscles in Miles’ arms and legs are weakened by his disease, he is confined to a wheelchair. A wheelchair that is much wider than Miles’ small frame, made even wider by the four rubber wheels that provide Miles’ locomotion. A wheelchair that can go forward and backward, but cannot scale the risers set up for class picture day.

And so while Miles’ classmates were sitting thigh to thigh, or standing hip to hip, there was Miles, off to the side. Part of the picture, but also, somehow, not. Separate, and not equal.

Miles’ mother noted that the angle her son assumed for the picture shows how much he “wanted to be part of the gang.” Miles’ father remarked that his son’s smiling face somehow made him feel worse about the picture’s composition. They convinced the school, and the photography company the school hired, to retake the picture. The second time around, Miles was sitting on a bench with his classmates, with a caregiver providing support, hidden from view.

The photography company, Lifetouch Canada Inc., admitted it made a mistake, but only after being prodded to do so. The elementary school has already announced that it will not hire the company again.

When it comes to raising and educating children, our world is becoming ever-more inclusive – at least in theory. The anecdotes of baseball teams where everyone swings until they hit, the competitions where everyone gets a ribbon for participation, the classrooms where everyone is a star, are becoming more than anecdotes. They are becoming evidence of a mindset, one that tries to foster individuality while reinforcing community. It’s taking the saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and it’s making it a guiding philosophy.

Perhaps the “everybody’s a winner” mentality goes overboard in some circumstances, and certainly a healthy balance of personal success and group uniformity is difficult. The debate, though, seems more appropriately confined to the children who can walk under their own power, who enjoy the uncompromised use of their limbs. Maybe we shouldn’t be the people who let little Johnny take 67 tries at scoring in the soccer game; maybe Johnny (and his parents) just need to accept the fact that soccer isn’t Johnny’s thing.

Inclusiveness in sports, and inclusiveness in any other area of measurable performance, is also a different question than inclusiveness in identification. Class photos are the seemingly innocent way modernized classrooms mark their composition for the posterity of a school yearbook or family photo album. It’s the picture that says, without words, “this is who we were, then.”

The class picture that left Miles hanging off to the side by himself said that the able-bodied students were a group, and the disabled Miles was alone. It said that the photographer and anyone else involved in coordinating the shot thought no further than standard practice: rows, risers, ready. It said that Miles was the one who had to figure out a way to bridge the gap that separated him from his peers.

Which Miles did, by straining the muscles he can still control: the ones in his neck, and his chin, and his lips.

If we are going to go out of our collective way to make sure that children do not feel left out or less than when it comes to an activity with a trophy at the end, then surely we should be surpassing that effort in ensuring that children do not feel left out or less then when it comes to where they fit in – literally and figuratively. My unathletic but mercifully healthy children might enjoy a spot on a 37-member third grade basketball team someday, and that’s fine, if that’s what they want to do. My socially-evolving and empathy-learning children should also be encouraged to recognize when someone with challenges different from their own could use a helping hand, or an extended arm, or just someone to be nearby.

Imagine the smile Miles would have worn if his class were arranged standing around and beside him, or sitting in front of him. Imagine the positive reinforcement that would have brought his classmates.

Happiness, all around. Happiness, front and center.

Featured image via Gawker.com