A class photo: “How would I have handled this differently?”


Here’s a human interest story making its way around the Internet:  A mom eagerly opens the envelope containing her disabled son’s grade school class picture, only to be heartbroken to see that he was physically separated from his classmates in a very noticeable way. Eventually the photographer returned to retake the photo, with the boy taken out of his wheelchair and supported on the bench by a caregiver.

As one might guess, some folks are posting angry things about the photographer and the teacher, basically accusing them of being so negligent in their jobs that they should be pilloried. I’d say let’s pull back on that heavy criticism. After all, there’s no evidence to suggest an effort to hurt anyone’s feelings or a deep-seeded antipathy toward disabled individuals. Instead, let’s use this as a lesson in applying social intelligence at work.

Learn, don’t trash

It starts by putting ourselves in the story: How would I have handled this differently? For example:

  • How can I be more aware of situations like this?
  • If I was the photographer, how could I have suggested regrouping the kids so that the boy in the wheelchair was not isolated in the photo? Keep in mind that you’re dealing with set piece photos, benches, and a pretty substantial wheelchair.
  • If I was the teacher, would I have even noticed how the photo might look? If so, how could I have suggested to the photographer and the other students that maybe we could regroup the kids, and do so in a way that made the boy feel included rather than singled out?
  • What words and tone of voice would I use to take a potentially awkward situation and turn it into a positive one for all?

It’s not that easy, is it? Our antennae have to be up, and then we have to find the right way to suggest doing something a little differently. I ask myself: Had I been the young teacher responsible for a whole class of kids, or perhaps the busy photographer assigned to take multiple class pictures, would I have comprehended this situation?

Hmm, that very easily could’ve been me overlooking it.

Empathy + soft skills = social intelligence applied

I happen to be trained in a profession (law) where so-called soft skills involving human interactions often are neglected as essential parts of our toolkits. Perhaps that’s one reason why this situation struck me as a learning opportunity about applying social intelligence at work. It’s easy to criticize the adults involved, but, in reality, handling the situation more deftly would require just the right touch with perhaps a bit of courage mixed in.

One little picture, so many lessons.


Photo and article link: Yahoo! Shine On, Jordana Divon, author

17 responses

  1. Great posting, David.

    Some of us, including myself, have also learned what NOT to do by over-responding. We can all live and learn from these events, to be sure.

    I am happy to be older and a wee bit wiser.

  2. Great opportunity to reframe and reflect on an unfortunate oversight. Putting ourselves in someone else’s position provides amazing opportunities to think critically about our actions. So glad I continue to learn about and teach emotional intelligence skills.

  3. The adorable little boy in the picture looks happy and proud. So, why is his idiot mother making a mountain out of a molehill?

    It’s obvious that the photographer was trying to center the class on the bench and placed the little guy’s wheelchair as close to the edge as possible.

    Here’s a picture of the “heartbroken” Mom: drop-dead, movie star gorgeous. Think her over-reaction to the photo of her disabled son is just a bit “top” because he’s not as “perfect” as she is, at least physically (It wouldn’t surprise me if the lad is a much nicer person than she is.)

    By the way, New Westminster, BC, is a wealthy area, with homes in the mid 6 figures-plus. I really think this is a story less about sensitivity to others than indulging a rich, spoiled woman with an ax to grind.

    By the way, please don’t think you’re accomplishing anything by criticizing me for writing this post. I KNOW that I am not a nice person: just a brave, insightful and honest one.

    • Because his “idiot mother”, unlike you, knows prejudice when she sees it. Your linking a picture of the child’s mother to your comment is indicative of just how abysmally little you know about disability discrimination. Your comment is wholly indicative of the ignorance inherent in the original picture.

      Your comment is also proof that David’s theory (“empathy + soft skills = social intelligence applied”) ONLY works when the listener is willing to listen. Otherwise it is useless. Throughout history, VERY few current slave owners (if any) developed empathy in seeing their wrong doing, and then released their slaves and paid them full and complete reparations for the time they were enslaved, plus “emotional distress”. How many American history textbooks empathize with the Native Americans who were outraged when foreigners took their sacred land?

      Prejudice and discrimination are seldom acknowledged by those who engage in them. Your statement is absolutely indicative of this.

  4. Thank you David. Your view is right on here. I see several solutions that the teacher and photographer could be aware of for future photo ops. I also see this photo and the resulting reaction as a teaching tool for teachers and photographers and anyone else that may encounter the same situation. Tips for being made aware of the need in advance and possible solutions.

  5. Thanks David for the post. I really cannot comment on the picture because I do not know why they choose to put him there. It does not mean he was purposely but there, but maybe they did not think to put him in the middle. Sometimes we make decisions without thinking. I think they could have put him in the middle up front and had the kids go around him on the other steps. Just my opinion

  6. @Marcia MacInnis: Not that the economic status of this child’s parents is really relevant to the story, but while New Westminster has some “wealthy” areas, but it has many more middle-class, working-class, and poor areas. If you are going to be “brave, insightful, and honest”, at least please get your facts straight.

    • Fiona, thank you for that apt comment. I clicked on the photo linked by Marcia MacInnis to see a caring mom who appears to be raising a happy kid, despite the challenges they’ve faced. I know nothing about their financial status, but I hope they have some money, as that would ease some of the burdens of raising a child with a severe disability.

      Overall, I think the story provides us with a teachable moment, rather than being cause for derision or anger.

  7. It seems that when we speaking about diversity and inclusion, teaching moments abound. Perhaps, because the mother spoke about the issue, thereby drawing awareness to the topic of inclusion, similar situations in the school can be thought about more proactively.

    Moreover, the publicity that this topic garners enables other communities, school systems, as well as parents to rethink how we, as a collective whole, choose to address accommodating those who are not able to be more intrinsically part of the larger community experience in which they are attempting to engage in.

  8. I am a long-time ediucator in both general and ‘special’ education. I also am an educator with disabilities. And I have filed several state and federal civil rights complaints against a very large education agency when I went from parochial (private) general education to public ‘special’ education.

    THESE PARENTS – AND ALL WHO PROTEST – HAVE *EVERY* RIGHT TO BE ANGRY. This is no isolated event, unrelated to other events. Do NOT ‘assume’ that this was some innocuous mistake and that in every other instance the teacher and photographers, the school, etc., are socially astute re: disability rights.

    As a long-time educator, having had kids who use wheelchairs and kids who don’t, I as the classroom teacher would intuitively know that I want my students – ALL – to ‘fit’ into the picture. I wonder where the child sits when eating his lunch (at the end of a picnic table where the trash cans are?). I wonder whether the kids using wheelchairs have some adapted recess activities (or is it monkey bars they either can’t reach, swings they can’t get into?).

    Our greatest challenge – especially when one is personally unfamiliar with how various disabilities are ‘experienced’ by kids – is to gloss over this picture inferring the outrage is an over-reaction.

    Recently, at a Pasadena, CA Board of Education meeting, a teacher (wearing a t-shirt for her union, surrounded by other teachers wearing their union t-shirts) publicly said “Not all children are ‘fit’ to be in the general education classroom.”. She didn’t say, “Help us to welcome kids who may have more intense needs than we know how to handle” – she said “Not all kids are ‘fit’… “. One message would have inferred “we want you…”; the one she said inferred “we don’t want them”.

    I spoke publicly about her message – for the California Teachers Association, of which we both are members, IGNORES disability rights – there is no membership group for educators with disabilities, but there are groups if you belong to other minorities. There is nothing re: disability rights in CTA’s “human rights”, but there is an anemic comment re: ‘special’ education (two, actually – they contradict each other!).

    A few days ago, when the district’s special education advisory committee met to discuss whether they should formally protest the teacher’s public comments … a teacher’s union member came, a paraeducator union member came and said it was “:free speech” . WRONG. She spoke ‘under color of authority’ – wearing a union t-shirt, surrounded by other union t-shirt wearers, speaking as an employee about students. She was intimidating any parent who wanted their child in “inclusion” – and intimidation IS a violation of state and federal law.

    NO, this picture is emblematic of deeper problems. It is so easy to gloss over it when one is unfamiliar with disability discrimination within education.

  9. Hi David, this young little man is smiling and happy and probably glad he is part of the group. I cannot begin to speculate on his actual mindset, however, he is not acting sad or left out.

    The laser focused technician, in this case the photographer, was likely setting up the picture just like every other class picture. He was probably in a hurry when the group dynamic changed. Obviously, he was in too big of a hurry to alter his technical mindset and think about the situation.

    In 2013, disabilities should not be an issue. Yet, having to fight for expert health care, accommodations, and late insurance payments under the review of “experts,” parents of children with disabilities have typically had to assert themselves in situations or get run over by private and public red tape. I can’t blame the mother for wanting a better class picture.

    Here in Oklahoma, we have had children killed while going to school and the parents didn’t realize they would not see their children again after the destructive F5 tornado ripped through Moore, Oklahoma. I propose we all lighten up and find perspective as we journey through this fragile life.

    Let us give a break to the teacher, the photographer and the mother. We all have one thing in common; we love children.

    Warm Regards,

    Kevin Kennemer, The People Group, Tulsa, OK

    • When it’s not happening to you, it’s easier to make your comment. You sound like you care, but you aren’t in the trenches fighting for this child. When you do what you say, you get run over! Because generally people just don’t care these days!

  10. Once again, you made me stop and think through scenarios. And step back even further to the school administrators and their sensitivity. Was there a ‘caretaker’ there for the boy? Were folding chairs available that could have allowed a different arrangement better integrating the wheelchair if moving from it was too involved? I also applaude the mother for not letting this pass. Thanks, David!

  11. Some of the comments here raise some of the ongoing discussions of “microinequities,” those seemingly small slights, often associated with factors such disability or gender, that cumulate and define one’s experience in ways that are more difficult to discern when we look at each instance in isolation.

    I’m thinking more of the mother here. I don’t think the hurt feelings were intentional. But it’s possible that she’s dealt with such “minor” matters as a parent caring for a disabled child so often that this was yet the latest, at least in terms of how she perceived it.

    In such instances, what we see as being an understandable response vs. being “oversensitive” may well be shaped by our own experiences.

    • re: “Some of the comments here raise some of the ongoing discussions of “microinequities,” those seemingly small slights, often associated with factors such disability or gender…”

      David, while I am sure you want people to “get along”, in failing to recognize the roots of outrage, you miss what others are saying. The picture is absolutely a “class act” of the “ableism” inherent in society. The knee-jerk reaction which tries to blunt the mother’s outrage exists because we, as a society, remain compellingly ignorant re: disability discrimination.

      Children with disabilities are like transracial adoptees – they can experience ‘life’ very differently from their family, school and community because of their disability. There are countless internal challenges they face that vary by specific disability, family’s coping skills, their own resilience, etc. Schools often view disabilities only in a destructive “medical model” (‘fix’). Teachers may take one class on special ed law, and nothing about disability awareness.

      Not many years ago, rhetoric about a picture disparaging the LGBT community wold have been perhaps only ‘muted’ by many while roundly and decisively criticized by some. Over time, however, the larger community has learned to “see” the disparagement in such a picture … in other words, sometimes it takes time – hearing a message over and over and in different ways in order to “get” the gravity of the wrong.

      The same is absolutely true for images regarding disability prejudice. One can’t sense the outrage our community sensed because our history is absent from your awareness. When “we” (i.e., the disparate disability community) becomes “mainstream”, you will have greater opportunities to hear the stories and hopefully your sense of moral outrage will kick in – and you will see what you don’t see now.

      “This” won’t happen in the next month – or decade. It will happen when …
      — a disabled actor plays the role of a disabled character in a TV show, and people are outraged by anything less
      — people who speak out on “mental health” are first seen as the people who’ve lived with mental illness, and not the psychiatrists or parents
      — people self-identify as people with disability vs. “passing”
      — there are as many “disability pride” parades as there are “gay pride” parades, Black history celebrations, etc.
      — public agencies openly share their ADA Self Reviews and Transition plans
      — the media doesn’t write “inspirational” stories about some rare condition
      — no knee-jerk “he must have been mentally ill” when the next young white male shoots and kills a bunch of people …

      • Sandy, I assure you that it’s more than wanting people to “get along.”

        I won’t pretend to know the experience of disability. But I’ve experienced racial discrimination and bias in both my childhood and adult life. Reflecting upon those words/actions and my responses to them have helped me to understand that some are intentional and others not; some are outrageous and others less so; and some reflect deeper institutional cultures, and others do not.

        With my own experiences as a backdrop, I happen not to regard this incident as being among the gravest wrongs visited upon a disabled individual and his family. I realize that you may disagree with me, perhaps vehemently. But I also can understand why the boy’s mom was heartbroken when she saw the photo, and I think it provides us a lesson in how the injured feelings could’ve been avoided and how the photo itself could’ve portrayed a greater sense of inclusion and dignity.

        What I further tried to convey in my comment was an acknowledgment that these experiences can be cumulative for the individual. The big and small, they add up to inform one’s perspective. For those who regard the picture as “no big deal” and the mom’s response as a gross overreaction, I would ask them to reconsider in light of that reality.

      • David, I appreciate your honesty here – as a Caucasian, I’ve heard “comments” that were inappropriate at best – and I am sure I experienced the positive side of being Caucasian even while having a disability. And I think that it is precisely because someone knows vulnerability that one is more attentive to it.

        Recently, a 14 year old boy with autism was stabbed to death by his mother and god-mother. I recall watching a YouTube video of the boy – with a man talking to the camera, facing away from Alex, who was in a hospital bed with 4 point restraints. As the man spoke to the camera, Alex, covered only waist-high in a sheet, was trying to access an iPad. The man never looked at Alex, but spoke about him.

        The tragedy was the reaction to this child’s murder. People felt sorry for the unfortunate consequences of a family having to ‘cope with’ a severely autistic child rather than outrage over that child’s murder. The child’s murder was less important than the “”sadness” for the parent in having to ‘resort’ to such a drastic measure. As a special educator, I wondered whether the family ever learned PECS (picture exchange communication system). It is designed specifically to deal with behaviors and lack of communication with kids having autism. It’s been around for 20+ years. Or Proloquo2go – an iPad app for communication. Or TapToTalk – a free iPad AAC app. The stuff is available … why didn’t the child have access to a PECS book/training?

        People who live with autism were justifiably outraged that society would regard the murder as a tragedy rather than a legitimate and absolutely violent child murder. People with disabilities were outraged … I wonder whether the mainstream media was able to sense the triple outrage – (1) at people seeing a violent murder as a time to pity the poor overburdened parent – a devaluing of that murdered person’s life “as if” he was bad for having autism, (2) that ‘this’ (Alex’s death/how his death is viewed differently from that of others) is a value-statement “we” face in countless ways (including prenatal testing and”therapeutic” abortions), (3) that there is a “disability industrial complex” – where people with disabilities (i.e., kids in ‘special’ ed, people living with mental ‘illness’, etc.) are talked about as though their input is irrelevant.

        Many years ago, people saw those “poster children” for cerebral palsy and “Jerry’s Kids” as innocuous to wonderful ways to “help the handicapped”. Those poster kids and Jerry’s kids have spoken out … and society learns. I think this class photo may one day be an iconic image indicative of how one grop sees so much in it … and another group sees very little. Same exact picture – absolutely different significance.

        We never were a “melting pot” were we?

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