A group of autistic children has recently been barred from accessing the Moscow Oceanarium. The staff of a school for autistic students contacted the ocean park to bring several children on a tour. But even after a teacher had explained about what autism is, the Oceanarium still informed the school that their request was “refused” on the grounds that other visitors would not wish to see autistic children. Said the message:
“Visitors do not like to see the disabled, it disappoints them. It is not acceptable.
An oceanarium administrator also suggested that the children visit the facility on a cleaning day, when it is closed to the public.
Hundreds have been expressing their outrage on Facebook and in other social media fora. As one Russian blogger wrote,
“If there had been a group of people using wheelchairs, then we could have explained the Oceanarium’s reluctance to let them in on a weekend … but a visit on a cleanup day is beyond understanding.”
I would further argue that it is not right to suggest that any group visit only on days when the Oceanarium is closed for cleaning. According to RT.com, the Oceanarium’s press service claims it does not know about the incident and that
“…people with disabilities visiting the Oceanarium are normally offered visits on days with less traffic “for their own convenience, and if this incident really has taken place, the staff member will be punished.”
The question is about whose “convenience” is being prioritized, that of individuals with disabilities or of the Oceanarium?
Rather than individuals with disabilities being short-changed, the Oceanarium should devise strategies and accommodations so that those with difficulties with mobility or other disabilities can visit. The Oceanarium says that it is indeed “testing a special program for people with disabilities, currently running on cleanup days” and says that it has selected cleaning days so those with disabilities do not have to wait in “long lines and crowds.” But the message sent to the autism school suggests that people with disabilities are being encouraged to visit on cleaning days because their presence might bother other visitors.
For children with disabilities and their parents, going out into public can be a very big deal. Not only might an autistic child struggle with crowds and sensory issues such as a grocery store’s fluorescent lights and a myriad of smells and sights. Because many autistic children have no visible physical traits identifying their disability, people may mistake behaviors such as crying or repetitive speech as a child “being bad” or “acting weird.”
In the time since my son Charlie was diagnosed with autism in 1999, there have been more and more efforts to include autistic children and children with disabilities in public events, from special screenings of popular movies to special performances of Broadway productions to restaurants to amusement parks. The Moscow Oceanarium is taking several steps backwards to say that autistic children should not be seen by other visitors, as if to suggest that autistic children and those with disabilities should neither be seen nor heard by the general public.
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Photo of an Oceanarium in Lisbon, Portugal by sheilaellen