This week I had the good fortune to come across 5 Reasons Your Child Should be Friends With Someone Who Has Special Needs. Everyone should read this article, by the way. It inspired me to share my perspective, too. As the parent of a child with no particular special needs and of twins with physical disabilities, diversity, acceptance and understanding is the only way of life my family knows. In fact at my house, the kids in wheelchairs are the majority and the kid not in a wheelchair is in the minority. We may have even reached a point where we don’t assimilate into our community–it’s more like our community assimilates into us. (And thanks for that, Community!) But it has occurred to me that in general, most families probably don’t have many opportunities to talk to their children about the “differently abled” or “special needs” kids and adults they may encounter in their lives.
I realize that this topic isn’t particularly “twin tuesday”-centric, but humor me.
When I was in grade school (waaaay back in the 1980’s–a whole other century ago, even. I’m talking about the days when answering a cordless phone involved pulling out the antennae first, if your family could even afford a cordless phone while they were still paying off their Betamax while you were still navigating the Oregon Trail on the school’s Apple IIe), I remember a stigma associated with special needs kids. They never seemed to fully assimilate with our classmates, and the fact that they were escorted from the classroom by a very quiet therapist/teacher once or twice a day did not help us relate to them. I was shy, wore incredibly thick glasses and was observant. I watched how the other kids treated (or mistreated) the special ed kids when our teacher wasn’t looking. I personally defended them occasionally, but not nearly often enough. I didn’t have many friends and couldn’t afford to lose the ones I had by standing up for a classmate who sometimes had no clue that I was risking my friendships with the only classmates who would sit next to me in the cafeteria at lunch. How ridiculous does that sound now, as an adult? Very. Shameful, even.
Yet here I sit, the parent of two brilliant almost-kindergarteners who are wheelchair-bound and about to dive into the public school system, putting them within eye-poking reach of a couple dozen of their peers who likely have not had one-on-one contact with a kid their age in a wheelchair. This is such a critical moment for all the kids: for my kids, who will need to harness all of their people management skills and all of their patience and understanding, and for their peers. And let’s face it, their peers don’t have a lot of responsibility here. When it comes to dealing with a handicapped five year old, my children’s classmates will only know what my children teach them, how their teachers model for them, and what their parents at home reinforce. I can beg, plead, and send personal notes home to their classmates’ parents, but ultimately I have little control how this new microcosm of society treats my kids. I can’t bear to think that either twin could be ignored, dismissed, shunned or left out simply because he and she are in wheelchairs. But I know how kids can be, how Groupthink can work against the kid who doesn’t look like the others.
A surprising number of teachers and parents in our area have already demonstrated some great attitudes when it comes to approaching the kids while we’re out and about. In general, I’m encouraged. But although it seems like the adults of the world should have a clue about tact or what to say when their kid points at my kid and loudly asks, “What’s wrong with him?”, not everyone does. And that’s okay. Kids are very skilled at noticing an unusual circumstance and making a scene about it to us in the middle of a crowd while we stand there mortified because we didn’t expect this question at this moment and everyone is looking at us and you just want your kid to lower his voice and now the other parent is staring and probably judging and oh jeez all we can come up with is “Shush, Johnny. Don’t ask questions!”
And what is that? That is exactly the wrong thing to say. Now you’ve just taught your child to feel bad about something he legitimately doesn’t know the answer to AND you’ve taught him to be ashamed about asking a logical question AND made my kid realize that he is something not to be addressed with a smile and handshake but with an aversion of eyes while you try to ignore him. Who does this help, exactly?
Every single time the above scenario happens I am so glad I am there for my kids. “Well, that dad was strange. Why didn’t he just tell his daughter that this is a wheelchair you’re sitting in and then let her come say hi?” “I don’t know, Mom. Maybe they’re shy. I liked her sparkly shoes.” And now my four-year-old has exhibited more open-minded maturity than the other parent, and I plaster a smile on my face and pass out hugs because they don’t need another negative experience in their lives.
There’s nothing wrong with being honest with your kids, and teaching them to be honest and genuine as well. Kids are so innocent and truly mean no harm when I hear them ask: “What is wrong with that boy?” or “Why can’t I have one of those?” If I am ever in a position to answer the child when I hear them ask these questions, I try to keep my answer age-appropriate, but just so you know I am happy to reply: “There’s nothing wrong with him, but his legs are too weak to walk. He drives a wheelchair. It’s blue and it’s fast.” or “Well, lots of people who are like you don’t need a wheelchair. That’s not a toy, it’s just that his legs aren’t strong like yours and so he uses his powerchair to run around.” and “Well, you should ask her. She can explain how her legs aren’t strong enough to walk, but she can run faster than I can by using her joystick. You should ask her to race!” And that’s if my kids will even give me a head start to answer the question–they’ve no hearing issues and are a bit extroverted, so it’s very likely that they will take over the conversation in the best, most age-appropriate way possible. They could teach us volumes.
Sometimes my kids ask about our neighbor, a boy a few doors down who has extreme autism. Why doesn’t he answer me? Why won’t he wear shoes? Why doesn’t he talk? Why does he walk into the street when his parents tell him to stop? These are challenging questions for me to answer. The boy appears completely normal from their points of view, but they sense something isn’t completely right.
I don’t always have the perfect answer to everything, but this one I feel comfortable with (and this really applies to every single person we come into contact with, at all stages of life): Everyone has problems. Sometimes you can see someone’s problems on the outside, and sometimes they look fine from the outside because their problems are on the inside. My kids have heard it a million times if they’ve heard it once. We all struggle with something. Nobody is entirely perfect inside AND outside.
And there’s nothing wrong with questions–from adults, children, store clerks, neighbors, bus drivers. Judging? Assuming? Alienating? Bullying? Projecting? That’s not okay. And unless you want to serve as a very unfortunate example of someone who has “problems on the inside”, you will not make my twins feel bad or allow them to sense any interpersonal negativity based on their physical disabilities.
And you will make the world a better place when you teach your own children acceptance and tolerance and inclusion by modeling these values yourself. You know, like Pluto here.