Michael Carthy still remembers sitting on a plane at age 14 when a flight attendant bent over in front of him to ask his mother, “How much can he understand?”
“My mom just kinda looked at me and then back at her and said, ‘He’s actually very smart,’ ” Carthy said.
For the most part, Carthy, a senior at Capital High School who has merosin-deficient muscular dystrophy, said he feels supported and accepted. Yet he, like many other teens who are physically disabled, encounters difficulties when it comes to accessing public spaces and opportunities.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, teens with disabilities are less likely to enroll in outside activities and postsecondary education than other teens. The gaps are even greater for those who come from lower-income, single-parent and lower-educated households.
Julie Lucero, executive director of special education at Santa Fe Public Schools, said this is why accessibility is so important. Providing appropriate resources and support to those with disabilities allows them an equal chance to develop talents and contribute to their community as their peers, she said.
“All students, whether they have a disability or not, have gifts, talents and bring a perspective that make a community a stronger place,” Lucero said.
Laura Carthy, Michael Carthy’s mother and the AP Literature teacher at Capital High, agreed, saying a lack of accommodation results in isolation and, subsequently, sometimes depression and suicidal thoughts.
“We need to treat all people with the dignity and respect that they deserve,” she said. “Nobody wants to be left out.”
In Santa Fe, most people agree this isn’t an issue, as most city facilities are accommodating to those with physical disabilities. Jesse Clifton, an attorney for Disability Rights New Mexico, said the Americans with Disabilities Act guarantees equal opportunities and access for all Americans with physical handicaps.
Still, there is a need for schools to provide specialized facilities that ensure there is a “sense of equity for students not often present in mainstream society,” says Shira Grabelsky, the curriculum specialist at New Mexico School for the Deaf.
“Schools that embrace the diversity of students by making school programs accessible and culturally relevant is the goal,” she said.
Laura Carthy agreed. “Like any teen, disabled teens want to be included in all activities,” she said.
Laura Carthy said her son recently attended an 18th birthday party, where his friend’s dad fashioned a ramp out of plywood and blocks of wood so Michael Carthy could enter the home. The gesture meant a lot, she said.
“Far from being seen as a burden, my son was valued as a good friend and welcomed to the party,” she said. “If a regular family can do this for a house party, in order to accommodate one child, why can’t schools and other public buildings make all their facilities fully inclusive?”
Finding such inclusion is especially difficult when it comes to sports, Michael Carthy said. He said he’s been approached a few times about playing in local baseball leagues, but because he’s competitive, “Those leagues are really just participation-trophy-type things.”
Even more important than opportunities and venues that accommodate those with disabilities is the way these people are treated, his mom argued.
“My son is very intelligent and funny. But if all you see when you look at him is a ‘cripple,’ and you treat him as less than because of your preconceived notions, then that is a far greater disservice than any physical barriers,” she said.
Grabelsky said making assumptions of those with disabilities largely stems from ableism, or discrimination that favors able-bodied people.
“In the greater society, the idea of disability is stigmatized, both covertly and overtly,” she said. “This takes on the form of words, mannerisms or actions that convey the notion that people with disabilities are subpar and need to be ‘fixed.’ ”
While Michael Carthy doesn’t play sports and often can’t go to parties — “Obviously I’d never ask my mom or dad to drive me to a high school party at midnight” — he is a part of numerous clubs at school, such as National Honors Society; Interact, a program dedicated to community service; and Wellness Ambassadors to Voice and Empower, which focuses on issues related to mental health issues and bullying. He also has a solid group of friends and supportive teachers who are willing to make accommodations for him, he said.
Laura Carthy believes during earlier times, her son’s lifestyle wouldn’t have been possible. Thanks to policy changes and increased awareness, she believes schools have become more inclusive and adaptable to disabilities.
“But there’s still a long way to go,” she said.
And the progress will only come from a continued effort to see people for who they are, beyond their disability, Michael Carthy said.
“If you see someone who is physically disabled — wheelchair, crutches, whatever — please talk to them just like you would any other person,” he said.
Niveditha Bala is a junior at Mandela International Magnet School. Contact her at email@example.com.