That Teacher Who Carried the Student Who Used a Wheelchair

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This is a post about the viral story of a teacher carrying a wheelchair using student on a school field trip. Updated 9/27 to include additional thoughts, and a note from the child’s mom at the end of the post.

Jim Freeman, a teacher at Tully Elementary School in Kentucky, recently carried a wheelchair-using student, Ryan King on a class field trip.

Watch the news commentary:

This story of the savior-teacher carrying the “poor wheelchair bound” student is viral beyond belief right now.

I saw it on numerous disability-themed boards and groups, because, YES:

Let’s make it into a touchy feely story instead of questioning why there would be an inaccessible field trip IN THE FIRST PLACE!

– Cara Liebowitz

Teacher Carrying a Wheelchair Using Student

As Sonja Luchini says, “my question as an advocate for families with disabled students is why isn’t the school planning field trips that are accessible in the first place?

According to this article;

child uses wheelchair carried on school trip“Shelly King’s 10-year-old daughter, Ryan, has Spina Bifida and uses a wheelchair. King said her daughter is often unable to accompany her classmates on field trips because the locations aren’t always accessible.”

Why isn’t she fully included in a way that gives her the dignity to participate as she is able? While I appreciate the kindness of this teacher, she may not always have such people in her educational life going forward.

Planning accessible field trips is providing FAPE in a way that gives her the choice of mobility on her own terms.” THIS is the part that we in the disability community want the able-bodied (non-disabled) people to understand: the injustice of it all.

The fact that the teacher is willing to carry a child on his back is one thing; but they need to understand that:

  1. The wheelchair is the child’s mode of access and transport. It’s her legs, so to speak. They are taking away her legs
  2. Why are they going on inaccessible field trips?
  3. If perchance they wanted to visit an inaccessible area, how about campaigning for access rather than putting the child in a backpack?

We need to be looking at these stories differently!

It’s not to say to not appreciate human kindness or the willingness of a teacher to carry a student; it’s to say to look at the fact that the class was excluding a child that by law should be included.

It is saying to look at the fact that out of all the myriad of accessible places to take a field trip to, they were choosing inaccessible options.

It’s saying to look at how much is accessible, inaccessible, and do something about the inaccessible areas.

It’s saying to think of the wheelchair as a tool for access that enables the child to get around; not as a lodestone or a binding thing (remember my post on being Wheelchair Bound?!)

It’s also saying to think of the potential repercussions for a story like this that goes viral, “oh, just put her in a baby carrier!”


The Parent’s Perspective

Sonja Luchini (quoted in the article above) reached out to connect with the child’s mother about her concerns over the field trip and carrying of her daughter. Sonja wrote, “I’d like to point out that she made a very gracious reply a few days after posting my comment:

“Sonja we are extremely lucky to have a school that does everything they can to make Ryan feel included. The honest part of life is that there are natural places in nature that aren’t easily accessible.

Having support like this means the world to us and Ryan. We sometimes decide not to send Ryan on trips due to difficulty but that doesn’t mean her school isn’t supportive. Kindness is real and we appreciate your concern so much. Thank you!”

Other Perspectives

From A Person Who Lives Nearby:

“This school district, which is one of the largest in the country, is a looooong way away from being able to celebrate meaningful inclusion, and I can testify first hand that achieving real, ongoing, day to day inclusion is more often than not a fight here, particularly for students with intellectual disability, and this district has a well documented history of mistreatment of disabled students (including a law suit against the Head Start program at this particular school just last year) which nearly led to a state takeover of the district a year ago, and shut down the Head Start program here.

I’m sure this person is a great teacher and has nothing to do with those incidents. I’m sure the school has made great turnaround efforts (I truthfully have heard good things about this school), but I feel a little salty when one small act of inclusion on one day for one student turns someone into a hero, when there is SO.MUCH.WORK to be done before we can start claiming victory for inclusion over here.

Being included in a school field trip shouldn’t be left to the goodwill of individual actors and then heralded as heroic. It should be on the school and district together to have a plan and solution already in place for when field trips come up.

The Falls are a very common field trip for Louisville students and I’m sure this isn’t the first time a disabled student has been met with the dilemma of how to go or not go on this trip with their peers. It’s shameful that there wasn’t already a solution in place for this. Good on this guy I guess, but I’d rather see a news story where we stick a mic in everyone else’s face in the district and ask why there isn’t a better solution in place for this scenario already, or the Falls of the Ohio, being such a magnet for school field trips, to ask them why they haven’t engineered a more accessible experience.

This is a story that has the potential to illuminate shortfalls in inclusion and accessibility and what a missed opportunity for the media that covered this to not comment on that.”

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  1. There are plenty of students and the majority of adults with disabilities I know, myself included, who look at this as not a way of including but a way of stigmatizing and further excluding. Does he pick up any able bodied children and carry them around? No, its only for “those” people, another way of boxing off people with disabilities from realizing equal status.

  2. That carrier being used is NOT a backpack. It is a device intended for carrying babies and children.

    1. I’m sorry; I meant baby carrier.
      That is meant for babies. Not children.

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