Monday, January 18, 2016

Let's Talk About So-Called 'Special Needs Proms'

[Photo: I'm seated on gray background material, in a blue, fitted, above the knee dress, smiling.  At 17 years old, this was as dressed up as I ever got.  Never a prom-goer, I've always been okay with that.]

Call me naive, but I was not aware that there was such a thing as a 'special needs prom.'  Perhaps it's something new, and I'm sure it was started with the best of intentions, but when this was brought to my attention by a friend last week, I was confused, wary and more than a little grossed out.  While I can definitely see some benefits in an event like this, mostly, I just an event that is rife with ableism.

As my friend aptly pointed out, 'Why have a separate prom?  Don't they want to be treated like everyone else?"  Totally fair question.  And while I am sure a prom like this was originally organized to make sure teenagers and young adults with disabilities could feel included, the fact that there is an entire separate event feels exclusionary.

Instead of fostering an environment in schools of genuine respect for all people and making the legitimate high school proms that exist accessible for students with disabilities, the so-called 'special needs prom' was conceived.  This is damaging because it assumes that disabled people are a monolithic group.  There are so many different types of disabilities and within those types, there are different degrees of involvement and different presentations of disability in each person.  To view all disabled teenagers and young adults under the same umbrella term is not doing us any favors.

To segregate us under the assumption that we will not be asked to a typical prom only increases the divide, as my friend so wisely pointed out.

While I can appreciate that many families with disabled members experience financial hardship, I can't help but feel that by making an event like this completely free and dependent on donations, it's more akin to a charity event than a celebration.  I agree that aspects of prom like makeup and hair, dresses and tuxes, not to mention limousines and dinner, cost an exorbitant amount.  If you factor in the ticket price as well, for an actual prom?  It's a big total.

However, with an event so tied to donations, who's to say that guests themselves can't be expected to bring something to donate, too?  Make the disabled community a part of the process.  Let us give, not only receive.

A key facet of this event is the existence of a 'host/buddy' which is a student (ages 15-22, and, presumably, nondisabled) whose responsibility it is to be at the side of the 'honored guest' for the entirety of the prom.  On the website it is stated that the sole responsibility of the host/buddy is to "serve the Honored Guest and make them feel loved, honored, accepted and celebrated."

I find myself wondering how it benefits the students with disabilities to experience 'love, honor, acceptance and celebration' in a way that is manufactured and in fact, disingenuous.  How are the teenagers and young adults supposed to really, fully enjoy themselves with a stranger they have only just met and are forced to spend six hours with, and even be photographed with?

To assign every single 'honored guest' a 'host/buddy' implies that every single person with a disability in attendance requires one.  I know if I were at a prom like this as a high school junior or senior I wouldn't want to hang out with a stranger.  The whole point of a prom is to be able to enjoy yourself with people who enjoy you and who you are around every day.

Alternately, playing devil's advocate, say that a student does require this level of involvement from a 'host/buddy'.  Are there background checks or any other kind of measures taken to ensure that these student volunteers (18 and up) and the adult volunteers are safe people?  If it's going to be a stranger's job to spend six hours at the side of a person with a disability, there should be basic requirements in place for that role - beyond antiquated standards on appropriate dress.  Like it or not, we are a population that is more vulnerable to abuse.  The registration form for student hosts requests only the barest information.  (Name, address, T-shirt size, and Are you available from 3:30-9 PM on the day of the prom? to name a few.)  Not vetting the people around disabled teenagers and young adults is dangerous and honestly shows a lack of foresight.  Not to mention a lack of respect for the disabled population at this event.  We are worth the extra time and effort of being sure we will be treated well.

One of the most ridiculous aspects to this prom, in my opinion, is the above request, which is present on the website.  None of these disabled teenagers or young adults is allowed to bring a date.  The emphasis is supposedly on "fun" and "friends."  Essentially, the 'host/buddy' functions as the guest's 'date,' in the most bland sense of the word.

This assumption that disabled teens and young adults have zero interest in dating or romance is just plain erroneous and harmful.  My community has just as much a right to bring a date to prom as our nondisabled peers.  (No one would think to ban dates from a typical high school prom, would they?  No one would go!)  Being disabled often means we are also desexualized by the general public who may view teenagers and adults with hormones as perpetual children.  The truth is, there are just as many different kinds of disabled people as there are nondisabled people.  That means, some or even most of us are interested in dating and romance.  That rite of passage should not be denied us just because of some discriminatory beliefs about our community.

Not only are the prom-goers relegated to spend their prom with strangers, whom they literally meet the afternoon they arrive for the prom, but family and friends who may have accompanied them, must remain outside as part of the "paparazzi" on the "red carpet."  These so-called 'honored guests' are isolated from family or friends who may make them feel more comfortable, and  instead forced to spend several hours with a complete stranger.

I don't know what to call that, but it definitely does not feel like a prom to me.

While I'm sure an event like this was dreamed up with the intention to give "everyone" the chance to experience prom, it seems to, in fact, do the opposite.  Solely creating a prom for disabled students effectively stops the need for high school proms to be accessible.  By grouping all disabled students together in one event, it emphasizes that they are seen as collectively "different," and "other."

Not expecting any sort of contribution from the guests themselves to an event such as this feeds the idea that this night to remember is, in fact, a charity event.  Something put on nondisabled people who pity disabled people and labor under the idea that none of us will ever have a legitimate prom experience of our own.

The constant presence of a 'buddy' is both condescending and unnecessary for all involved.  While some guests may benefit from this degree of one-on-one attention, it is not needed for everyone.  I also believe that each and every volunteer should be subject to at least a background check, to ensure they are not a threat to a population already more vulnerable to abuse.

Finally, if the guests want to bring dates, let them bring dates.  Isn't that the point of prom?  And if they don't have dates, let them escort a person of their choice (family member or friend) so they feel fully comfortable and safe in this environment.

Have you ever heard of a so-called special needs prom?  Would you want to/have wanted to go if/when you are of age?  Would you want the disabled teenager or young adult in your life to attend an event like this?  Why or why not?  Sound off in the comments.


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