#JusticeForEthan, Birthday Parties, and Inclusion

If you have recently followed the blog, you might not know about Ethan Saylor.  He was a man with Down syndrome who went to the movies with a caregiver, had a misunderstanding over wanting to stay in the theater without a second ticket, and ended up dead.  He died of asphyxiation; his throat was crushed when three off-duty police men tried to inappropriately remove Saylor from the theater instead of allowing the caregiver to diffuse the situation.

During that time, many people in and out of the disability community were calling for more police training, believing that such training would have altered the course of events for Saylor.  I felt deeply ambivalent about the discussions on police training after the Ethan Saylor’s homicide.  In fact, I saw some very real examples of how the concept of training turn into something very wrong.

Last week, many in the Down syndrome community became aware of a children’s gym called Surgent’s Elite School of Gymnastics in New Jersey that refused to allow a little boy with Down syndrome to have his fourth birthday party at their facility.  When the boy’s mother went to arrange her son’s birthday, she discovered that the gym had a blanket “no special needs” policy.

The New Jersey play gym defended their “no special needs” policy because they claimed they did not have enough training.

Cases like the little boy in New Jersey are downwind casualties of the very flawed logic of training that I saw after Saylor’s death.  I won’t go into the myriad reasons that I didn’t think discussing training was appropriate in the immediate aftermath of Saylor’s death, but will say generally that I think it siphoned off valuable energy that should have focused on accountability and discipline.  Above all, I worried that the myopic focus on training would bolster the false logic that one needs special training or expertise to interact with a person with a disability.

I think that supporting disability training in all situations, for all reasons, is very dangerous.  It subtly creates a believable barrier to understanding and inclusion.  If a four-year-old boy can’t even have a birthday party without some kind of specialized staff present, then how could that boy be included in a typical classroom?  Play sports?  Be in public?  Many can easily make this troubling leap in logic.

It is clear that the manager of the gym is not out to be a terrible person.  He’s since offered to host the party, which is a step in the right direction.  Yet I can’t get behind his insistence on hiring specialized staff to do it.  I cannot, for the life of me, imagine what kind of specialized staff would be needed for this situation.  I’m sure many are thinking, oh, but maybe the boy wasn’t physically able to do what his similarly aged peers could do.  The mother reported that her son had no medical restrictions. I’d hazard a guess that the boy liked and could do the kinds of activities that a birthday party at a gym would entail, or else his mother would not be pursuing the idea at all. I’ve been to plenty of kid’s gyms. Children inevitably have different ability levels, that is simply natural variation, special needs or not.  Any decent staff knows how to adjust the activities so that all the children present are comfortable.  Don’t mistake me, I can imagine various, specific circumstances in which a child would need some extra support in order to participate in a birthday party at a play gym.  But frankly, I can imagine these situations in and out of the special needs realm.

The message, in the meantime, seems clear.  Children with special needs cannot be included simply as a matter of course.  In fact, it may be safer to exclude them altogether.  As an aside, this safety logic was also very prevalent in the aftermath of Saylor’s death; many blamed Saylor’s mother for placing him in the supposedly dangerous situation of being out in public without her presence.

Is it such a big surprise, when some in our own disability community accept that police brutality against their own can be solely addressed with… training?  This over-reliance on training sets disability apart in a way that I do not see in any other marginalized community.  Imagine the words, “If only he had been trained to deal with black people,” were uttered after a race-related officer shooting.  Yet, replace “black people” with “disabled people” and this sort of logic occurs every day in our schools, police departments, government, and every day conversations without enough critical examination.

It isn’t that I don’t think awareness training can be valuable.  Sensitivity training for all sorts of groups, for instance, is a good thing.  I don’t feel differently about disability training.  Mainstream America could stand to learn what disability actually is and isn’t, and that it is a varied and diverse part of human existence.  It is an unfortunate fact that many people simply are not exposed to positive and realistic depictions of disability and if training can help bridge that gap, wonderful.

Let’s just be careful.  Training can only be a small part of that solution.  It is hard to talk about inclusion for the sake of inclusion, accountability and discrimination because they force us to confront basic ideas of good and bad, right and wrong.  These conversations are confusing sometimes and can get uncomfortable, but ounce for ounce, the amount of positive potential is much greater there than in simply slapping a training/expertise label onto the problem and walking away.

If I could get in a room with the officers who killed Saylor, I would ask them why they felt that Saylor was so different that the de-escalation techniques they surely already knew were not applicable.  I would tell them that if they had dug into the basic training they already had, that Saylor could still be alive today.  I’d tell them to approach every person, disability or not, as a unique and precious life.

If I could get in a room with the manager of Surgent’s Elite School of Gymnastics, I would tell him to reconsider his belief that he needs special training to run an inclusive gym.  I’d tell him dig into his basic instincts for interacting with children, rather than adopting a blanket policy of exclusion out of fear.  I’d tell him to approach every child, special needs or not, as a unique and precious life deserving of inclusion.

17 Comments on “#JusticeForEthan, Birthday Parties, and Inclusion”

  1. omg. YES! I was thinking just these thoughts in relation to Charles during his IEP, today. Gah. I’m too annoyed to even write about it, yet. xoxo

  2. Miriam says:

    You’ve got me thinking that at least part of the problem lies in the way we segregate our society. Kids are in school. Adults are at work. The elderly are in nursing homes. It’s hard to understand what inclusion would look like since it’s not really a part of the very fabric of our society.
    Because we homeschool, we are often out at parks and rec centers during “school hours”. It’s often me and my kids, a few older people, and a group of disabled adults. I suspect that if my kids were in school, they would rarely be around elderly or disabled people, really anyone who wasn’t just like them. Our society is very, very segregated. It’s not inclusive, although it should be- and I hope people like you will change that.

    • jisun says:

      That is so true, Miriam, our society is not very incisive in general. You see it when first time parents know nothing about children, having never been around them.

      Re: homeschooling, that is something that has always bothered me, that misconception that my children are sheltered. In reality, just like you, I feel like they are exposed to and understand a much richer, diverse world.

  3. Glad to see Ethan Saylor in your blog, Jisun. It got me thinking about the militarization of urban police forces, which seems to result in LE seeing the non-LE population not as citizenry but as potential enemy. More “officer training” isn’t enough to address the us v. them mindset. It requires action at the front end of the process, in recruiting, in human resources, so jurisdictions can assemble a candidate pool of potential LEOs smart enough to know they don’t need to use the same tactics to get a young man with Down syndrome out of a movie theater that they would use to get a belligerent drunk off the street.

    Hope you keep posting about your little man and his adventures – he’s a great counterbalance.

    • jisun says:

      I think, in fact, that some training actually perpetuates this enemy us vs. them culture, when it is over emphasizing compliance above all.

      Lots of adventures for the little man to come, I’m sure!

  4. anawnimiss says:

    You’re right, training can’t possibly be the solution. What happens when these kids grow up and come into contact with the world outside of schools and gyms with specially trained staff? Will we then insist on training entire populations so they feel comfortable including these children?

  5. VirginiaSaft says:

    This means a lot to me! I have a sister with autism, and a lot of her friends have down syndrome and what happened to Ethan is shocking. Thank you for sharing

  6. Mardra says:

    When Marcus was born I called, roughly 20 different day care providers looking for one who would accept him so that I could go back to college. This was pretty much everyone in town, it was a small town. I finally was directed to an already overworked mother who happened to have a child with a unique disability, she took my son – *The easiest baby in the whole region, BTW* (I’m pretty sure) after I broke into tears with my request. All in the name of training. So, yes, I get it. It’s a stupid hang up, and frankly a dumb excuse, in most situations.
    On the other hand, I read this blog today
    And it shows, yet again, the reason we need “training” is because so many members of society teach their children beliefs that, we need our first responders, at the very least, to be Untaught.
    Can we “train” society? I dunno. That’d be the best though.
    In other news, SO happy to see you blogging again! I missed you and your words.

    • jisun says:

      Yes, I’m really not sure. Maybe the problem is that we put too much on what training can do. It feels like, at the point of grown adults in a workplace (such as a police officer), there is a much bigger uphill battle to get that kind of understanding and awareness into a person. Seems like the heavy lifting needs to happen in school, the family dinner table, sports teams, broader society.

      Thank you for your kind words, Mardra. Makes me smile. :)

  7. This is a hard topic. As a mom of a child with autism I do advocate training and awareness so that inclusion is a given. I find that there are still so many people that are scared to deal with people with disabilities and I want them to know and be educated on the different ways to handle a situation. That poor little boys mom must have been crushed when they did that but i do like the idea of having trained staff. I feel safer for my child. That said, tolerance, compassion and inclusion must become commonplace in society. Nice post.

    • jisun says:

      I suppose for me a deeper question is, can a person be trained into understanding. I’m not sure. And like I wrote, in the meantime, I fear that we don’t talk enough about the downsides and barriers that training creates. I do understand why training exists, however, I really do.

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