Monday, July 27, 2015

Disability and Discrimination: A Children's Story

I read this story by Carrie Ann Lucas ( (shared by Amy Sequenzia​) a few days ago.

We underestimate our kids all the time, about what they hear and what they understand, based on what they can articulate. So I wanted to talk with Jack about more complex topics, like disabilities, social justice, race, compassion, and advocacy. I floundered a few times, dropping subjects here and there, with no context and no success. And then I remembered Carrie Ann's story.

Jack was drawn right into the story. When they told Carrie Ann that they couldn't fit her wheelchair on, he quickly knuckled his tears into his eyes.  He fought tears again when they told her to get off the plane.  

Here's the story I read to Jack, paraphrased from the original post by Carrie Ann Lucas:
"Carrie Ann Lucas is a wheelchair user who lives in Denver, Colorado.  She had her day all planned out.  She was flying on an airplane from Denver to Washington, D.C. to attend a conference about people with disabilities.  When a person has a disability, it means they may have difficulty walking, seeing, hearing, moving, or speaking.

Carrie Ann was a little worried before the flight. Would her wheelchair arrive in one piece? Would there be someone to help her on to the airplane? Things like that.  Typical worries for a wheelchair user. Carrie Ann wrote out a checklist. Check that she had all her bags.  Check that all the chair parts got on the plane.  Check that the chair actually got on the plane. 
Carrie Ann had plans upon arrival.  She had checked with the hotel to make sure her wheelchair would fit in the room.  She had checked that there was a drugstore with supplies for her chair.  She had checked that a restaurant she chose could fit her wheelchair in the door and at a table. 

The day of the flight came.  Carrie Ann made it to the airport with no problems.  She made it through check-in.  She made it through security.  She made it on to the plane and was sitting in her seat.  Everything was ready.  
Suddenly, a loud knocking was heard on the airplane door.  Boom, boom, boom. The flight attendant was not happy, but opened the door.  The gate agent ran in and yelled at Carrie Ann, 'Your wheelchair will not fit on the plane.  You need to get off!' Carrie Ann was shocked.  Her chair had fit on other planes with no problem.  She explained to the flight attendant how to fit it on the plane.

The other passengers began to get angry.  They didn't want the flight to be delayed. 'We'll be late," they yelled at Carrie Ann.  'You need to leave the plane so we won't be late!' The flight attendant told Carrie Ann that they did not have the proper tools to get her chair in.  They told Carrie Ann she would just have to take a later flight on a different plane that the chair could fit in.

Carrie Ann had no choice.  She left the plane."    
"Wow, " Jack said softly.  I asked him a few questions about the story's facts, where Carrie Ann was going, what she had planned, what disabilities meant.  Then I asked him open-ended questions about his thoughts and feelings about what happened, what he thought Carrie Ann was thinking and feeling, and what he thought the other people were thinking and feeling.  I asked him about all the things that people could have said or done.   

Here is the story that Jack wrote (via dictation) to me in answer to those questions.
"People with disabilities means they can't walk or they can't use their legs or they can't eat.  Sometimes they can't see or hear.

One thing is maybe I didn't want to fly anyway.  She was going to D.C.  She had a hotel and a restaurant planned. I wouldn't feel sad, but I might be mad at the flight attendant. I would say, "I planned to go to D.C., now stop it!"

I would squeeze the wheelchair in myself.  I would show the flight attendant my ticket. I would tell the pilot, "I have a ticket!" Maybe Carrie can rent a wheelchair just for D.C.

It made Carrie feel sad and if that happened to me, I'd say, "I've got a ticket!" Eventually, I'd feel like I want to scream and jump out the window.

When I got to D.C., I'd feel happy."
Jack's tears for Carrie Ann almost overwhelmed him.  He tried to manage it with denial (maybe I didn't want to fly), but he also felt for Carrie Ann (It made Carrie Ann feel sad).  He recognized the unfairness (now stop it), but he also advocated for his rights (I have a ticket). He thought about various ways to solve the problem (go over the flight attendant's head to a higher authority or rent a wheelchair).  And he understood that the responsibility for the problem really sat with the airline (I have a ticket). 

After the story, he got out his toy wheelchair and played with it.  He asked me who I knew with a wheelchair.  We talked about people in our family and my friends.

I'm going to keep talking to my child about tough social justice issues.  I hope he helps more people think about equality and compassion.  And I hope that we all learn and believe that our children DO understand much more than we know.