What message do Tim Tebow’s special needs proms really send?

Football player Tim Tebow

Tim Tebow (AP)

Any high-school movie will tell you: prom is more than a dance and an excuse to get dolled up. It’s a night that celebrates adolescence and embraces the next journey in young adult life. Prom is an evening where all students, no matter where they sit at lunch or what clique they belong to, come together one last time.

Hollywood might portray prom as a picturesque evening, but the reality is that prom can be far from the suburban fairytale we envision, and a new trend on the rise begs the question of whether the typical high school prom truly is welcoming to all students.

Tim Tebow, a former NFL quarterback and current sports network analyst, recently announced his plans to host 45 prom events specifically for teens with disabilities and special needs on February 13. The series of simultaneous proms, called Night to Shine, is sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation and the dances are expected to draw a crowd of nearly 7,000 teens across 26 states and three countries. Each prom will include the fixings of a magical evening. Attendees will be able to get moving on the dance floor, strut across a red carpet entrance and arrive by limousine.

By the sounds of it, this prom already blows mine out of the water! A genuinely good guy is using his influence to give back to the disability community–what could possibly be controversial about it? I’m not here to denounce Tebow, his foundation or Night to Shine. I have respect for all three. Tim’s heart is in the right place and these teens are more than deserving of a special evening. My concern is that some people feel a need to segregate an event that should celebrate inclusivity.

We’re approaching the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law that revolutionized the civil rights of individuals with disabilities. Yet half a century later we’re struggling to make an event that celebrates togetherness accessible for all students.

The media is quick to spotlight an increasing number of events like Night to Shine, yet it misses the mark when it comes to exploring why these dances exist in the first place. Even more upsetting is that these proms are privately funded events held at unaffiliated locations like churches and event halls, with no support from the schools they serve. I have to ask: Are high schools doing enough to make sure their proms are welcoming to students of all abilities?

Here are a few starting tips for schools preparing for the big dance this spring:

  1. Choose an ADA compliant location: Schools often elect to hold their proms at off-site locations like hotels, ballrooms or country clubs. Even though it’s 2015, some of these locations are still living in the past—with amenities that fail to meet the standard for ADA compliance. In 2013, an Oregon teen, learned he could not attend his own prom because the event space had no elevator to their second story ballroom. The key to avoiding disaster is research. Make sure to ask the events coordinator at a given location about their accessibility.
  • Be Sensitive to Sensitivities: To make prom a joyous night for all teens, schools must go beyond the basic ADA standards. Teens have different sensitivities based on their unique abilities. Choose a dance floor that’s large enough to support multiple wheelchairs, opt for lighting that is comfortable and make sure there are quiet areas in place for attendees needing a break from blaring music.
  • Listen to your students: Want to learn how to appeal to the needs of your students? The answer is simple….ASK! Students will be happy to share how their evening can be enhanced, be it from hiring an interpreter to being able to avoid certain foods that irritate allergies.
  • Learn from peer institutions: An increasing amount of inclusive educational programs are popping up throughout the country. These schools pride themselves on offering quality educational experiences to students of all abilities.
  • Here at Easter Seals we’ve been lucky enough to talk with people at the Chime Institute, a California charter-school that’s a national leader in the development of inclusive education. At Chime, students of all abilities learn side by side, enhancing each child’s strength, while also fostering educational progress.

I’m encouraging a call-to-action for schools to examine whether their “inclusive” evenings really are welcoming to all students. Know of any schools exhibiting true accessibility when it comes to dances? Any thoughts on influencers like Tebow funding separate dances? Please share your opinions in the comments section.


Related Links:

  • Prom is a milestone moment for many. Share your prom photos on Twitter or Instagram with #LifesMoments to be featured on easterseals.com. We’re sharing our achievements and milestones all season long. Join us!




Comments may not reflect Easterseals' policies or positions.

  1. MC Says:

    “I’m not denouncing Tebow”.

    Yeah, yeah you are. In a very roundabout way, you are. This is why there is such a clear divide in this community. Social justice idiocy has seeped into this community big time.

  2. Johnna Says:

    This is ridiculous. The suggestions you make act as if students can turn their needs on and off. Have a quiet place to go to get away from blaring music? Most kids on my sophomores special needs class couldn’t handle being in a room with blaring music at all! Also, there is a huge difference between physical and intellectual disabilities. Someone who is in a wheelchair is most likely able to attend a normal prom. Someone who doesn’t understand waiting in line for a glass of ounch, maybe not. And most special needs students need chaperones for events.

  3. Norma Says:

    I think this article misses the point. it’s saying, “yeah Tim you did good, but it’s not good enough”. No matter how much people want disabled kids to be included in everything, reality says that’s not going to happen. Prom is one of those nights where certain kids cannot have their needs met at a regular prom. An event like this is just for them and Tim Tebow should be proud that he could be a part of creating something so awesome. Unfortunately, haters gonna hate and that’s a shame.

  4. Nancy Farr Says:

    It is heart breaking to me when our personal agenda’s take away personal choice and opportunities to celebrate who we are, just the way we are. By all means support and be involved in your local high school prom planning to insure all can participate. But it is arrogant and self righteous to use a special night planned for ANYONE as a platform to promote “inclusion.” The very act of this article is promoting exclusion. Our community is having a Night to Shine and their are companies that are not allowing their clients to participate. It is a crying shame.

  5. William Stonehocker Says:

    The point of a special needs dance event is a way for me to socialize with everyone, even girls. I live in Candler, NC, and it’s kind of pathetic that there is barely any progress on those kinds of event. I’m from Jersey, and I ripped apart my last school for not honoring it (when I was in their failed S9 program). I have autism, and I do not belong to crowded and noisy environments.

  6. Kim Collins Says:

    My daughter was one of the individuals that was honored to attend Night to Shine. For many years she was included in a regular classroom setting and no one had to tell her she was “different” when she couldn’t understand the material the other students her age could. Only when she was able to be a part of a group of individuals that each had “different” abilities of various kinds did she begin to realize she wasn’t alone. It is important for inclusion but also important for them to have times where they can truly be themselves and show the affection they have for each other in a place only they can know and understand how they each feel.I feel Tim Tebow gave them an honored night to celebrate who they are with those that know and understand their feelings and gave many who were living in a time before inclusion was a part of many school systems their Night to Shine.

  7. Sharon Says:

    What is wrong with letting special needs teens have a special night together with their special needs friends? As a parent of a child with severe disabilities, that is the only setting that he would be able to participate in. For others that may be able to go to the regular school prom, what is wrong with them being able to attend a special needs prom in addition to the regular prom? As much as a school might try to accommodate our special children, I believe that they feel more comfortable in a special setting and with their special friends. Also, then they do not need to try to fit in, they truly feel they belong. I think the special proms are an awesome idea and he should imitated, not criticized.

  8. Donna Smith Says:

    This post is right on target. For those of us with disabilities or who work in the field of disability services, “special” has almost become synonomous with “separate” or “segregated.” Why special? For a lot of teens, prom is like a right-of-passage and part of the passage involves being there and seeing and being seen by your fellow students. This particular right-of-passage doesn’t occur behind closed doors or in a separate facility from everyone else. While Tim will get a lot of high fives for his kindness, (and I truly believe this effort was motivated through sincere kindness), it is a slap in the face to nondiscrimination on the basis of disability. His money could have been put to much better use by providing assistance to prom planners on how to choose the right venue and set up this important night for ALL students.

  9. simon Says:

    Reality is that it’s unfortunately very expensive to do things like make elevators for a 2 story banquet hall. And many schools can’t find a location that fits all the right criteria. I think most disabled have no choice for prom but events like tebow is hosting.

    Although yes these schools need to care more which they don’t.

  10. Jerry bench Says:

    Your awesome tim. I miss y
    Seeing you on Sundays.