Why A Teacher Carrying a Disabled Student on His Back Shouldn’t Be News

Photo of a school bus from the back driving down a road lined with trees.

Once again, an abled person recently went viral for including a disabled person in everyday activities.  That means it’s (*checks calendar*) a day ending in Y. This time, a teacher is being lavished with praise for volunteering to carry Ryan Neighbors, a student with spina bifida in a specially designed backpack on an inaccessible field trip.  

From the original post on Facebook, made by Ryan’s mom, Shelly:

“If i haven’t bragged on my kids school enough – well, listen to this. They are going on a field trip to Falls Of The Ohio today. Obviously, NOT accessible. I was preparing for an “alternate field trip day” when a male teacher reached out and said “I’m happy to tote her around on the falls all day!’”

The post included several photos of Ryan grinning ear to ear in the backpack carrier as the teacher carried her around the Falls.

I get it. When I was Ryan’s age, I probably would have embraced being toted around in a backpack instead of being left out of yet another field trip. As someone who grew up with a physical disability, I vividly remember being excluded, huffing and puffing behind everyone else as they climbed terrifyingly steep staircases, and having my mom patiently explain to my teachers that it might be a good idea to keep an eye on me while crossing busy parking lots, as I was likely to be behind the group and at risk of falling over. When my eleventh grade physics class took the legendary field trip to Six Flags, I considered going for all of half a second before discarding the idea as just too complicated.

These experiences continued as I pursued my bachelor’s degree in Education. When the third grade class I was working in took a field trip to a museum, I was stuck being pushed around in a manual wheelchair by a parent chaperone, and felt more like another student than a teacher. I know what it’s like to feel like a burden on field trips, both as a student and as a teacher. I’m glad this teacher was able to provide a solution that afforded Ryan at least some participation in the field trip.

What troubles me is the overall situation and the reaction to it. First, I have to ask, why was an inaccessible field trip planned at all? Not only is planning an accessible field trip the right thing to do, but also it is actually illegal to exclude a student with a disability from a field trip. According to the regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, a public preschool, elementary, or secondary school “shall provide non-academic and extracurricular services and activities in such manner as is necessary to afford handicapped students an equal opportunity for participation in such services and activities.” The regulations don’t explicitly name field trips, but do name “recreational activities” as an example of non-academic services. In Ryan’s case, the teacher and school were actually doing the bare minimum required by law.

I think we can argue that while carrying Ryan in a backpack carrier included her on the trip, it didn’t actually “afford [her] an equal opportunity for participation” as she was unable to independently participate to the extent that (presumably) her other classmates did. I mean, imagine being tethered to an adult every time you want to explore something or talk with your friends? That doesn’t sound very equal to me. The Interpretive Center, a museum within the park, is wheelchair accessible according to the Falls of the Ohio website. It would have been easy to simply take a trip to the museum instead of hiking the paths.

The teacher who carried Ryan is,  like so many others, a decent human being being lauded for simply doing the bare minimum to include a person with a disability. His story has been featured in numerous news outlets, including People Magazine and USA Today. What is that saying to Ryan and other kids like her? That including them is somehow noteworthy? That they shouldn’t expect to participate in activities with everyone else? That anyone who includes them is automatically a hero?  

When stories like this go viral, it reinforces the idea that people with disabilities are second class citizens, beholden to abled gatekeepers who have the power to decide whether or not we get to participate. That’s not why people with disabilities occupied the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare headquarters for weeks on end or crawled up the Capitol steps. That’s not what I fight for every day.  But unless and until we deconstruct these feel-good stories and call them out for what they are – inspiration porn – we’ll never achieve that vision of equality we’ve been working towards.  I dream of a day when a student like Ryan can go on a field trip, in her wheelchair, and access the same activities as everyone else – and there’s absolutely zero news coverage of it.

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Cara Liebowitz is a disabled activist and writer currently living in the Washington, DC area. Cara works at the National Council on Independent Living as their Development Coordinator, fundraising for programs that help people with disabilities live in the community. She's passionate about science fiction, knitting, and cats (sometimes all three together!). Cara blogs at http://www.thatcrazycrippledchick.com.