Not a child; don't treat me like one
I spent the last two days in Long Beach, California for the TASH National Conference where I was giving a presentation. This morning, I was sitting in LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) waiting for my plane to begin boarding so I could return to Washington. The terminal was impossibly cacophonous. Scores of people dressed in red Santa hats or green Christmas elf hats jabbered in raucous conversations, competing to be heard over scores of children wearing identical white Fantasy Flight t-shirts and red Santa hats as they occupied four rows of seats at the gate.
I'd never heard of a Fantasy Flight before, so I asked one of the staff what they were doing. She winked as she told me they were taking the children to "the North Pole." Another member of the staff told me that they fly around California and look for snow-covered mountains, and then tell the children that it's the North Pole. "Basically," he said with a light smile, "we lie to them." The children, they said, primarily come from lower socio-economic background. It's a fun holiday tradition that the airline does across the country.
Sounds like a nice experience for the children, many of whom (if not all of them) probably are still young enough to believe in Santa Claus. Some of the staff perform for them during the flight. Others are dressed in costume as characters. And the event concludes with a visit from "Santa." And that's great, because it's always nice to do something fun for children around holidays.
Here's the problem -- not everyone participating in the Fantasy Flight event was a kid. There were maybe ten or fifteen adults with Down Syndrome, some of them middle-aged (and possibly a bit older than that). And that bothered me. There was something inherently, innately problematic with that, and I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was for the longest time.
And I realized what it was as an alarm began to blare in the terminal. (Someone had accidentally opened a door without keying the code first, and it actually took the next several long minutes before someone figured out how to deactivate it. I noticed one of the actual children covering his ears, and was relieved I wasn't the only one with that immediate impulse.)
However well-meaning the event organizers and coordinators and volunteers and staff were -- and I have no doubt that they were nothing less than extremely well-meaning and positively-intentioned -- the fact remains that they were infantilizing disabled adults. For those not familiar with the term, infantilization is when a person is treated or thought of as if they were an infant when they are not. It's an incredibly common occurrence with disabled people, and particularly with developmentally and intellectually disabled people. I wince when I hear service providers or teachers talking to disabled adults in a slow, high-pitched "baby voice." I have sudden, strong urges to bash my head against the nearest wall when I witness non-disabled people in positions of authority or power depriving disabled adults of agency by making decisions for them despite their clear ability to express (however unconventionally) their own choices.
What the people organizing this particular Fantasy Flight were doing was treating disabled adults as if they were children. The underlying ableist presumptions of this type of treatment are that a.) disabled adults are mentally like children or infants, b.) disabled adults should participate in the same activities as children because they're essentially "on the same level," c.) disabled adults, like many young children, won't realize that "Santa" doesn't really exist, or that the plane isn't really going to another destination, d.) disabled adults should be thought of as grown-up children in adult-looking bodies, and e.) disabled adults aren't competent and don't have agency.
Could a disabled adult make a voluntary and fully informed decision to participate in this kind of event? Of course. And while it's entirely possible that that was the case today, the evidence suggested otherwise. The evidence suggested, rather, that the adults with Down Syndrome participating in the Fantasy Flight had been taken along on a bastardized field trip by their service providers or support people as an "activity." I also noticed that none of the children seemed to be talking to the adults with Down Syndrome. And I couldn't help but wonder if any of them knew about organizations like Self Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE), which is primarily an organization of people with Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities, or TASH itself -- at the conference, there had been a large number of folks with Down Syndrome, including a few celebrity actors with the disability.
It was so easy to picture them participating in a local self-advocacy group or a national disability rights conference. And it was so cringe-inducing to see them dressed in the same shirts as what looked like six and seven year olds (or thereabouts), being treated the same way as the children, being shepherded along for the activity.
Disabled adults, regardless of the specific disability group, regardless of the nature and level of an individual's specific impairments, regardless of presumptions about an individual's mental or neurological state, should never, never, never be treated as if they are small children. It's more than insulting, offensive, and patronizing -- it's dangerous and it's dehumanizing.