Do Wheelchair Perks Help or Hurt Kids with Disabilities?


The Problem with Wheelchair Perks

If you have a young child who uses a wheelchair, you’ve probably experienced the kindness of strangers who want to make your child feel special. How do you feel about that?

A recent blog by Mary Evelyn, a mother of kids with disabilities, is highlighting what could be termed as “reverse discrimination” towards people confined to wheelchairs—though the term “reverse discrimination” is something of a non-sequitur, because discrimination is discrimination, whether it’s negative or beneficial to the recipient.

Her blog tells a story of taking her family out for an Italian dinner, where the casual-dining establishment took great pains to provide special treatment to her son, Simeon, whose disability requires a wheelchair. “Does he like cannoli?” the girl at the counter asked. “I think he needs some of our cannoli bites!” She then gave Simeon the cannoli for free.

The “wheelchair perks,” as she deems them, don’t stop there. She has stories of grocery store clerks quietly passing him cookies, or toy stores giving her daughter LEGO sets, and strangers paying for meals.

Mary doesn’t want to seem ungrateful about these gifts, and she knows they are given with the best of intentions, but she is rightly uncomfortable with it when it happens. The truth is, it’s not fair to other kids to treat those with disabilities as special, when such special treatment is not needed. A wheelchair ramp and proper clearance for accessibility is one thing—giving away freebies just because a kid has a disability is something else.

Some people might feel that Mary should be grateful at the efforts, and certainly she is, but there is an important point to consider: in her estimation, just because her children have disabilities, it doesn’t make them deserving of special benefits. Many well-meaning grown-ups who offer such perks may not even realize that they are being discriminatory by offering free gifts. Instead of treating her kids like they’re capable of living life like able-bodied kids, they’e calling attention to the disability and harming efforts to build awareness.

Even worse, what kind of message is this sending to kids with disabilities? They may get the idea they deserve such perks, a dangerous message that may carry over as they get older, and they’ll face a rude awakening when “the world will not bend over backwards to make a man in a wheelchair feel ‘special,’ nor should it,” she says.

As we continue to create a more accepting, tolerant, and equal world for individuals with disabilities, the one important concept we should keep in mind is this: people with disabilities are not looking for special perks and, in general, don’t want to live lives where their disabilities are considered defining factors. Address accessibility concerns? Yes. Give them secret cookies? No. The former shows compassion; the latter is discriminatory—or is it? Which side do you come down on in this debate?


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