When Anne Belanger received her son’s grade two class photo last month, she immediately stuffed the image back into its envelope in disgust.
In the photo, the students and teacher line up neatly in three rows. But one student is missing from the group.
There, in the far right edge, her son Miles Ambridge sits in his wheelchair, separated from the rest of his classmates by an empty space on a bench. Despite the obvious gap, the seven-year-old beams for the camera, craning as far to the side as his tiny body will allow to be closer to his friends.
While she can hardly stand to look at the photo, Belanger is overcome with anger and sadness when she does.
“Look at the angle that he was in,” said the New Westminster mom, her voice a whisper as she fought back tears. “He’s ostracized. He wants to be part of the gang so much.”
Miles has spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease that attacks nerve cells in the spinal cord, causing muscles throughout the body, especially in the arms and legs, to weaken. The disease does not affect cognitive abilities.
Miles was diagnosed at just 13 months, when doctors told his parents their boy would never walk.
Living in a wheelchair, Miles has already faced more challenges than any young child should have to deal with, said his father Don Ambridge. That’s why it was all the more frustrating to see Miles excluded from the group in what should have been a simple class photo, he said.
Ambridge, who was the first to see the photo, said the image made him feel humiliated for his son.
“For some reason it makes me feel even worse that he’s so happy in the picture,” he said. “I think it’s because he’s still innocent ... He’s still naive to how other people can treat him.”
Miles’ parents have decided to keep the photo from their son, who hasn’t seen the picture. Belanger said Miles is “profoundly aware that he’s different than his peers.” If he saw it, she thinks he would be deeply hurt.
But his parents still wanted to bring attention to the photo in a bid to shed light on discrimination, which they said is still a daily reality for people with disabilities.
Belanger posted the photo to the photography company’s Facebook page. Lifetouch Canada removed the photo with a message that it was taken down due to privacy laws, but that they had sent it to their head office.
Not satisfied with their response, Belanger posted the photo again with the other children’s faces blacked out. Meanwhile, Miles’ dad sent the photo back to his son’s school, Herbert Spencer Elementary, requesting it be thrown out. When school principal Tracy Fulton received the returned photo, she said she immediately contacted Lifetouch as well.
Still, Fulton said the company didn’t immediately see anything wrong with the photo. It took some coaxing until Lifetouch agreed the separation of Miles from his class was a mistake and offered to retake the photo, she said.
“You want to think that they just made a mistake and they weren’t willing to correct it,” said Fulton. “But in the meantime, the parents were really hurt by it.”
Miles’ mom said she blames both the photographer and the school for the gaffe. However, Fulton defended the school’s actions and said the photographer was solely to blame.
Fulton said none of the school staff had seen the photo before Miles’ father sent it back. At the photo shoot, she said his teacher, from her position, also couldn’t see the distinct gap between him and the rest of the class.
The photo was retaken earlier this week by another Lifetouch photographer. In the new photo, which his parents have not yet seen, Miles was taken out of his wheelchair and supported by a caregiver on a bench beside his classmates.
On Thursday, Lifetouch admitted their photographer made a mistake.
Dean Cochrane, manager for the Lifetouch office in Burnaby, said the company teaches its photographers to build the composition of photos differently when they work with people in wheelchairs.
“On this composition, it wasn’t done right,” he said. “This will be a learning experience for this photographer.”
Regardless, Belanger said the photo is discrimination and a reflection of a society that still attaches stigma to disability.
“Kids can be cruel but this comes from adults, which is even worse,” she said. “Adults should know better."