On April 26, 2003, I went to see the new Adam Sandler movie with my two best friends, who happen to be blind. Then, it was time for me to get ready for my senior prom. My mom painted my nails, and helped with my makeup. My prom date happened to be the other blind student at my school. We weren’t a couple, but we were friends, both single, and both interested in going to prom. So, his dad picked me up, we exchanged the customary flower arrangements. We went out to dinner, went to the dance, had fun dancing and meeting each other’s group of friends. It was a fun night, something I still remember, but certainly nothing worth making the news.
Two kinds of disability prom experiences have been making the news in recent years. One is the “night to shine” annual event sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation since 2015. On February 8, 2019, 655 churches around the world hosted all-expenses-paid “special needs proms” exclusively for teens and young adults with disabilities. The “honored guests” with disabilities were treated to a night of glamor, dancing, and celebration. But, these guests could not choose who would accompany them on this special night. Instead, they were matched with nondisabled volunteer “buddies” who escorted them to prom.
The second disability-related prom experience I hear about is the public “promposal” in which a nondisabled teen asks an obviously disabled classmate to the prom. Not only does the promposal go viral on social media, but it is often accompanied by stories featuring the beauty and selflessness of the nondisabled promposer. The disabled student’s side of the story is often lost. Sometimes, the prom couple is then voted prom king and queen by the student body, merely because one member of the couple is disabled. Or, we might read about two disabled teens taking each other to prom, and automatically getting voted prom king and queen. The one twist we never see, though: a disabled teenager doing the promposing, asking their crush to the prom, and getting an authentic “yes” in response. That would be a video I could actually enjoy watching.
People like hearing about the Night to Shine events, and watching the promposals. Most ordinary people feel happy about the idea of disabled teens getting to experience prom if they want to. And, there are a multitude of reasons why some disabled teens might miss the chance to attend their high school prom. But, neither the Night to Shine events nor the one-off promposals from kind nondisabled teens really address the systemic barriers between disabled teens and their high school proms.
What can we do, as individuals and as a society, to make proms and related experiences truly inclusive to disabled youth? The real answer is not sexy, it’s not news-worthy, it’s certainly not generative of a social media meme.
Let’s examine the chain of events that enabled me to connect with my own prom date in high school. He and I had the same teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) and the same orientation and mobility (O&M) instructor. Our teachers arranged activities and lessons that we attended together with other blind students throughout the school district. We spent time together sharing common experiences and challenges, and this enabled us to develop an organic friendship which eventually led to our decision to go together to the prom.
I have no objection to the idea of holding exclusive events for youth with disabilities; in fact, as I’ve written before, I work with a program for blind youth where all the youth and mentors are blind. There is a great deal of value in such programs, which can bypass all kinds of participation barriers found in mainstream settings. We’ve seen the magic of relationships (both platonic and romantic) arising out of our program, and the impact those relationships are having on our students’ lives. In contrast, the segregated Night to Shine approach isn’t focused on developing lasting relationships between the participants. Instead, it’s simply focused on giving the participants a fleeting night of fun. The only relationships built are paternalistic ones between a disabled youth and a nondisabled “buddy.” To create the kind of social change we are seeking, we need to put the factors in place so that disabled youth can build meaningful relationships-whether with other disabled youth, or with their nondisabled neighbors and classmates. Because really, relationships are what the prom experience is all about.
Real, organic, reciprocal relationships can’t be engineered, not even by social psychologists. But we can identify factors that tend to encourage attraction. Research shows that two of the most important ingredients for relationship making are proximity and similarity. Proximity refers to how often people share the same physical space. The “proximity principle” explains why people are most likely to befriend or date individuals who live, study, or work near them. Similarity, meanwhile, can involve any shared trait, interest or experience. For example, examination of marriage records has shown that people are more likely to marry others who have similar names or initials than would be expected by chance.
In order to allow disabled youth to experience the joys of prom night, we need to start years before they’re old enough to go to prom. We need to put the conditions in place so that disabled people of all ages can fully access real, organic, two-way relationships. This starts by making spaces accessible so that disabled people can learn and play in close proximity to their peers with and without disabilities. And, instead of making a fus about programs that highlight the differences between disabled and nondisabled youth, we need to provide opportunities for disabled youth to find peers who share similarities with them-whether those peers have disabilities or not.
So, let’s think about how we can make the daycare centers and the playgrounds fully inclusive so kids with and without disabilities can build connections through play. Let’s work to include disabled kids not just in the “least restrictive” classroom, but also in the cafeteria in elementary school and the drama club in high school. Let’s nurture disabled students’ natural strengths and interests so they have something to share with their peers and aren’t just takers in their friendships. Let’s work on creating programs for disabled youth to interact with one another, that are run by disabled adults who have firsthand experience with the populations they serve. And, by all means, let’s work on the proms themselves. Let’s make sure everyone can fit through the door, that people with differing sensory or physical needs have access, that people who don’t dance on their feet can still dance, that the presence of disabled students at the prom can become the ordinary sight it should be.
I do hope that someday, the Night to Shine proms will become obsolete. Someday, a disabled teen being promposed to, or promposing, will be so ordinary that no one will think to pull out a video camera. Then, disabled youth can claim respect, not just for a night, but for a lifetime. Let’s make it happen.