Thursday, June 20, 2013

A School Photo Tells the Story of Disability Incompetence

By Kim Cantrell,CFILC’s Program Director

My husband shared a photo with me last weekend that stopped me in my tracks. Check out the photo below. 

The photo includes a student iwho uses a power chair placed approximately two to three feet to the right side of his classmates who were arranged seated shoulder to shoulder on several rows bleacher risers with the teacher standing closely on the opposite side. The student in the power chair leans in to his class, but the space between is too wide for him to truly seem like part of the group photo.

If you are like me, your initial response might be, “What was the photographer thinking? How could the teacher allow this?” I am especially sensitive because I worked at two different school photography studios in high school and off and on throughout my college career. I had never come across a photo even remotely like this one.

On Father’s Day my husband, a school photographer himself, received an email from a national photography listserv with this article about the photo that ran in a Canadian newspaper.

The original photographer who posted the story to the listserv asked, “How would you have photographed the group?” Many photographers weighed in on the subject. “If possible, take him out of his chair,” one replied. “Just push the class toward the student and move the teacher behind him,” someone added.

Though each response seemed well-intentioned, they didn’t take into account that assistive technology (AT) is part of the person. Including the student with his AT as part of the class rather than off to the side was the only way to make the photo truly inclusive.

If an adult asks a child if he wants to be moved out of his wheelchair for a class photo, the student may view it as the only way to be included with his classmates or see it as a way of fitting in. Moving the student out of his chair sends the wrong message to the student and his peers that using a wheelchair is “less than.” In addition, transferring a student may require a personal assistant, which may be unsuccessful or result in injury, and it can also be embarrassing. It’s much better to use the class photo as a learning opportunity and to encourage the children to work together to get an inclusive shot.

Assistive technology should be considered part of a person, and photographers should not ask or persuade students to give up their AT in a class picture. Instead, with the help of the teacher, the photo should be built in a way that neither excludes nor highlights the student using the wheelchair.

Unlike the authors of this newspaper article, I believe the teacher should have been involved in making sure the student was sitting with his peers in the photo. The teacher is usually the last person placed in a class photo in order to help arrange the kids and make sure the situation is under some resemblance of control. It’s not a time to zone out. So when I read that the teacher didn’t know how the students were posed, it sounded like the school was trying to dodge responsibility.

Both school photographers and teachers have a responsibility to ensure all students are included in a class picture in a meaningful way. With that said, many national photo companies hire young, inexperienced photographers to take class pictures, and they are told to move as quickly as possible. It’s true that schools only allot a short amount of time for photos so students can get back to class. This means that teachers must pay attention and be a partner in the process.

If you are a teacher or a school photographer, what should you do to make sure each student is included in his class photo in a meaningful way?

Should you place a student who uses a wheelchair at the end of a row, off to the side with a teacher? 


How about placing the student on the bench without his wheelchair? 

I don’t think so.

Can you use creativity to re-imagine the photo? 


What about incorporating a student’s wheelchair or other assistive technology into the photo? 

Most definitely.

Though the parents of the student above ultimately had the photo retaken with the student transferred onto a bench and out of his wheelchair, there are many ways to set up a photo that includes a student’s AT in an inclusive way. The last thing you want to do is make a young person who uses AT feel ashamed of who they are and what they need to be independent. Instead, you want to promote self-esteem and disability pride so that each student feels good about their self-identity.

My husband and I discussed how to best rework the original photo. Though we can’t share example photos due to privacy issues, the following is a description of what we would have done. 
The first row of the bleachers becomes the back row where students stand on the benches. A row of students stands on the floor in front of this new back row, becoming the middle row. The next row is seated in chairs, allowing for many options to place the student in the wheelchair. If needed, a row of students sitting with legs crossed in front of the seated row would be added for larger classes. In fact, my husband has arranged many class photos this way in the past.

All of a sudden the school photo tells a very different story. A story of inclusion. A story of AT as part of a person. A story of acceptance. And a story of another successful school year completed for a class of smiling children. It’s a win-win-win.

If you have questions about disability etiquette and competence or are looking for resources to share with your friends and family, click here for a great web resource. And please feel free to share this article with the school teachers and photographers in your lives.

What do you think? Please share your perspective in the comments box below.


  1. I completely agree that the photographer and teacher should have arranged the student in his wheelchair into the picture, rather than taking him out of his wheelchair or putting him on the side, separated from his class. Great article!

  2. Wonderful article Kim... Although the photo is troubling, I do like the conversation that it has brought to the forefront. I love your and your husbands thoughts on positioning with the chairs. I will be sharing your article, and I hope the conversation continues to inspire change.

    Speaking of change, I hope that you are able to find another solution to place comments that does not require an inaccessible CAPTCHA that is not accessible to the visually impaired. Thank you!