Utah cheerleading photo incident sends a message

Morgyn Arnold in a photo with her cheerleading team. CNN has intentionally blurred the image.

David M. Perry is a journalist and historian and co-author of "The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe." He is a senior academic adviser in the history department of the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)In second grade, my son's class finished the school year by doing theatrical re-creations of the books they had read. Parents even got a flyer announcing the activity with students listed under each book. My son was missing, and when I inquired, was told that "Nico would participate as an audience member."

David M. Perry
In sixth grade, we went to a choir concert and my son's homeroom teacher (a special education instructor) ran up to me to tell me that he would only be on stage for some of the shows, but that she was working on it. Over the next few minutes, it emerged that the choir teacher had ideas about professionalism in performance that my son — who likes to dance enthusiastically, to his great joy and the delight of everyone watching — didn't match. After the concert, we tried to engage with the choir teacher, to talk about my son's right to fully participate but I'm sad to say that we never really got through. Each semester brought another fight for a program that included my son. Still, he loves choir, so we try to protect him from all this drama and keep him dancing.
    My son, a non-speaking autistic boy with Down syndrome, just finished eighth grade. I've been thinking about the many incidents in which allegedly inclusive programs turned out to only mark out my son's difference in the wake of the viral story about Morgyn Arnold. She's also an eighth grader with Down syndrome and was a devoted part of her school's cheerleading squad.
      Arnold's father told CNN that she posed for one photo with the team and was seated in the middle of the front row, but when she got her yearbook on the last day of eighth grade, she realized a different photo that didn't include her had been chosen. "She walked in and she shows it to me, she says 'I'm not here, but these are my friends and I love them,'" her father said.
        The team photo as it appeared in the yearbook. CNN has intentionally blurred the image.
        In disability social media, where I'm active, this kind of story is common. I live in Minnesota, first found it on the page of a mom who lives in Illinois and before it got national media coverage, saw it ricocheting through my networks around the county and beyond. We all shared it — and disclosure, I've been tweeting about it a lot in fury, certainly helped propel the story to journalists and I don't want to pretend I'm impartial — because as parents of kids with disabilities, each of us has encountered moments like this. And fury is appropriate.
        In a Facebook post, Arnold's sister Jordyn Poll pointed out, "There were two photos: one with Morgyn and one without. A choice was made on which photo to submit, a choice made MULTIPLE times and a choice that excluded Morgyn EVERY. SINGLE. TIME." The school issued a statement apologizing for a "mistake that was made." Arnold's parents and Poll have responded with grace as the story has received both local and national coverage, asking for this to be a learning moment as many have rallied support for their daughter and sister.
          I agree with their instinct here. There's no reason to ascribe deliberate bad intent to the adults who made the bad choices, but they did choose, and they did hurt this eighth grader and her family.
          So what now?
          There are really two lessons to take from this kind of incident. One, adults need to be more aware of the harm they do when they exclude disabled children. They hurt girls like Morgyn Arnold and boys like my son, but they also teach the other kids that exclusion, that segregation, is normal and necessary. What did the kids in choir learn when my son was ushered off the stage? What did those other cheerleaders learn when their friend was taken away so they could pose for a second picture? Ableism, like all other forms of discrimination, is learned behavior.
          But second, beyond the specific mistake of the photo choice, I hope school officials consider the deeper failures of inclusion especially around sports. Poll told the New York Times that Arnold loved being part of the team and spent hours learning routines and attending games. She got the crowd shaking their booties.
          Get our free weekly newsletter

          Sign up for CNN Opinion's new newsletter.

          Join us on Twitter and Facebook

            But in the picture of the team where Arnold does appear, she also didn't have a uniform or her own set of pom-poms, presumably because she was the "manager." That's a familiar euphemism too for a disabled kid who spends time being part, but not really a full part, of school sports teams. Usually we encounter them on the flip side of these stories of exclusion, where a disabled athlete is the "manager" for a team and "allowed" to score a goal. Local news exults over these kinds of stories as evidence of the goodness of the abled kids. There was even a Ritz Cracker ad campaign about "the manager." For parents like me, the "manager" euphemism is just another sign of exclusion.
            Kids who want to play team sports should be able to play team sports. Kids who learn cheer routines should be able to cheer. Kids who want to sing should be in choir. Kids who are managers should actually manage teams, which is a real task in school sports that kids do when it's not being used as a euphemism. Inclusion is not a favor that adults do for disabled kids, but both an ethical obligation and a legal right owed to all children.