Second grader in wheelchair set apart from classmates in school photo

Jordana Divon
Shine On
June 17, 2013

Class photos usually end up on the family fridge, but the snapshot Anne Belanger received of her son’s Grade 2 class in New Westminster, B.C. went straight back into the envelope in which it arrived.

The mother of Miles Ambridge was heartbroken to see that her seven-year-old boy, who has spinal muscular atrophy and, as a result, must use a wheelchair, had been placed, chair and all, far off to the side from the rest of his classmates.

This physical distance emphasizes the fact that he’s not included in the group, Belanger tells the Province, and the photo serves as the most egregious example so far.

“Look at the angle that he was in,” she says, referring to the way Miles is clearly craning his body toward the other children to get closer to them in the shot. “He’s ostracized. He wants to be part of the gang so much.”

Even worse, she says, the placement decision was made by the adults who organized the photo.

“Kids can be cruel but this comes from adults, which is even worse,” Belanger adds. “Adults should know better.”

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The adults who raise Miles certainly do. Since he was diagnosed with his degenerative condition at 13 months, Miles has needed special assistance to physically move around. Spinal muscular atrophy, notes the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, is a disease that compromises the nerve cells in the spinal cord, eventually causing a breakdown in the body’s muscular system.

Because Miles has been dealing with all the challenges in his life so well, even smiling ear-to-ear in the class shot, his father is even more incensed by the way the photographer and school treated him.

“For some reason it makes me feel even worse that he’s so happy in the picture,” Don Ambridge tells the Province. “I think it’s because he’s still innocent ... He’s still naive to how other people can treat him.”

"It broke my heart," he adds in an interview on CBC Radio One's On the Coast.

In order to preserve a bit of that innocence, even temporarily, Ambridge and Belanger have decided not to show the photo to their son.

But that doesn’t mean they’re keeping the image under wraps. Since receiving the photo, the parents have lashed out at the school and the photo company, Lifetouch, demanding that both coordinate a re-shoot.

While Herbert Spencer Elementary has responded to the criticism (by putting all the blame on the photo company), it’s taken a little longer for Lifetouch to acknowledge any responsibility.

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The Province notes that Lifetouch had to be “coaxed” in order to admit that Miles’ placement was a mistake and has finally agreed to retake the class photo.

Meanwhile, the proliferation of Miles’ photo and story over media outlets has drawn attention to the way many still treat individuals with disabilities and revives the need for increased awareness and sensitivity.

It’s a challenge that Miles’ father still grapples with himself.

"I hold myself to account for making mistakes in [Miles'] daily life as well. I’m a parent. You do your best on a daily basis, but I’m not above it either," he admits to the CBC.

"Be sensitive to our differences, but don’t highlight those differences, accommodate them.”

So in spite of comments from readers who are saying the story has been “blown out of proportion,” this critical reminder bears repeating.

What do you think: Has this incident been blown out of proportion or should the photo company be ashamed for its placement of Miles in the class shot?

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