Isn’t It a Pity? The Real Problem With Special Needs by Torrie Dunlap (Transcript)

Torrie Dunlap at TEDxAmericasFinestCity

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In the early 1990s I was a student on this very campus. In fact, I was a student on this very stage.

I was a drama major who had a dream to change the world through arts education. The world, however, had something different in mind.

In one of my first theater jobs, I was directing a production of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I don’t know if you know it, but in it there are a lot of kids and they sit on the stage on bleachers on either side and they sing throughout the show.

We held auditions and we had a lovely middle schooler with a really pretty voice who also happened to use a wheelchair. I remember casting her in the play and feeling so excited about having someone with special needs in the show. I mean, how amazing for her and also how incredible for the audience, who would see someone using a wheelchair on the stage.

I spent way too much time feeling good about myself for this decision. We had a few logistics to figure out. So the production team and I put our heads together and we created a set design that used the traditional bleachers seating, but it also had a cutout so we could slide her wheelchair in and she would sit in her chair next to the kids on the bleachers.

We hadn’t told her about this, and on the day we moved into the theater I could not have been more excited. The theater was old and it wasn’t very accessible and it took 3 dads to hoist her in her chair up onto the stage. I led her over and I very proudly showed her where she would sit during the performances, and I couldn’t believe what happened next.

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She looked up at me and she said: “How come I don’t get to sit on the bleachers like the other kids?” Wow. I could not believe how badly I had missed the boat. I had been so caught up in the visuals and my own good feelings about this that I had completely lost sight of the fact that she had a choice in how she participated and I had not even thought to ask her.

Without intending to, I had marginalized her. I had turned her from a 7th grader who likes to sing and just wants to be in a play with friends into some kind of poster child for disability representation in the arts. I never forgot that experience and how much I learned that day.

In fact, it informed the whole rest of my career. After years of teaching kids of all abilities, I took a leap of faith and I became a part-time program coordinator at a small grassroots nonprofit in San Diego called Kids Included Together. We were teaching child care and recreation programs how to meet the needs of all kids.

Nine years later I became the CEO and we have now done our work in 45 states and 10 countries and we teach thousands of people each year, and I have learned in my 20 years of immersion in this field that we can overcome our fears and the barriers that separate children with and without disabilities by changing our mindset.

In 2011 the World Health Organization and the World Bank produced a report on disability and in it the report states that children with disabilities are among the most marginalized children in the world. I believe that a reason why, as a society, we have not embraced children with disabilities as full participants in our schools and communities has to do with the limitations of our own mental models around disability.

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