My 12-year-old son brought a large bag of celery to school. His teacher emailed me later that day to ask me not to allow my son to do this, explaining that he might seem “weird” to the other students.
This email seemed like part of a familiar pattern of trying to control our son’s behavior and communication without seeking to accommodate, adapt, or understand. I wrote back saying we would try to avoid having our son bring items that are distracting or unsafe to school, but that comfort items were important to our son. I offered to give a presentation in the class about my son’s disability to help foster acceptance. I advised the teacher that my kid not only has Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic disorder, but that he also inherited “weird genes” from his parents, and so, despite any efforts to help him fit in, he was likely to be weird. I didn’t get a response to this email.
They never asked why my son likes celery.
We live near a small farm where visitors can bring lettuce and celery to feed the animals. My son loves to feed cows. He loves to do it more than any person I’ve ever seen. I spend a lot of time hanging out at the farm, watching my son and others feeding the animals. We go there about twice a month, which is not nearly often enough. We have been through periods when my son asks to go to the farm every day.
Though he can’t quite express it, my guess is that celery evokes a happy catalog of cow-feeding memories and holds a promise of more to come. He takes celery to bed. My son has carried celery into fine restaurants, on all forms of public transportation, and in numerous cities across the United States and Australia. If celery is a limitation, it is hard to see how.
In my ideal school, educators would be curious about celery. They would elicit some cow feeding stories from my son. Maybe he would come home with an essay or some art depicting our last visit. With support, he could work on a presentation about bovine digestive systems or a garden project culminating in a class trip to the farm to feed the animals celery grown by the students. My son could be seen as a person with something worthwhile to share.
I imagine the teacher had good reasons for wanting to ban celery. They likely want to protect my son from a harsh world that criticizes kids who don’t fit in. They are not wrong to be concerned. But even without celery, there is no way our son can “pass” for neurotypical, and he shouldn’t have to try. He and all children, with and without disabilities, should be able to live as their authentic selves. My son’s celery is a refreshing choice when compared with the usual totem objects of middle schoolers — certain types of cell phones, sneakers, and sports team paraphernalia.
Celery may seem like a trivial issue, but if we can’t make school a safe place for celery, it will be very hard to make other shared spaces more inclusive. Lack of understanding and acceptance of people with disabilities leads to microaggressions, overt discrimination, and sometimes situations of grave danger. In 2013, a man with Down Syndrome was killed by police in a movie theater while his caregiver was getting the car, because the man wanted to see the film a second time and hadn’t purchased a ticket. In 2016, an autistic man with a toy car and his caregiver were shot at by police because the toy was perceived to be a weapon. Maybe if these officers had been exposed to classmates carrying celery while in school, they’d be less likely to make gross misinterpretations that bring grave harm to people with disabilities and their families.
This summer, I’m relieved that my son will have a break from those who try to control his harmless attachment to celery, coffee bags, a lion puppet, or other favored objects of the moment. He can bring along any items that don’t pose a danger to anyone, won’t cost a lot to replace, and don’t hinder us too much on our adventures. This summer, we’ll be at the farm, movie theater, grocery store, subway, nice restaurant, beach, and everywhere else we choose to be, celery and more in tow.
Sarah Taylor is an associate professor of social work at California State University East Bay, where one of her areas of research is in disability advocacy.
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