While running errands, my daughter and I often run into a young man at his place of employment who is friendly and seems to be well-liked by his co-workers. He is very pleasant and always chats with me about my daughter while completing the tasks he is assigned;
It seems, however, that it has been obvious to my nearly two-year-old little girl for a few months that our delightful acquaintance is unlike other people she has encountered.
From my daughter’s facial expressions and reactions, I think she recognizes that he talks a bit differently than most adults she has come into contact with and that when he interacts with her, he moves a bit more into her personal space than other ‘strangers’ do. Despite his gentle friendliness, his actions appear to have been a bit intimidating to her. I wish she had the language to tell me what she was thinking about their interactions.
Yes, there is no denying that he has some kind of disability.
I’m not here to label him, and I don’t even want to try to do that.
As a matter of fact, I hate labels. Having worked with children with disabilities as a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) for the better part of a decade, labels were essential to my career to qualify some children for services, but I have always despised needing to use them. A label really means very little about an individual. Everyone within a particular diagnosis is different. For example, people with Down Syndrome all have their own challenges and strengths; like snowflakes, no two of them are alike. The same is true for people with Autism, cerebral palsy, or really, any other label people might choose to self-apply or apply to others.
In today’s society, we speak so much about accepting others on basis of their skin color, their gender, and their sexual orientation. I agree we that we should continue talking to our children about all of those things but additionally, I want my children to grow up knowing that people who have a disability or diagnosis, whether it is visible or not, are ok too; that there is nothing to fear or make fun of.
In a world where some doctors talk to pregnant mothers about quality of life and the possibility of terminating pregnancies because a prenatal test has detected a ‘problem,’ where bullying has become a major issue, and where it is often hard for people with disabilities to meet their potential once they are old enough to enter the ‘real world,’ I want my children to see these individuals and accept them as they are, rather than as a burden to their families and society.
When I was in elementary school, I don’t remember there being that many children in my classes who would have been labeled as having a disability. Then again, not as many of these individuals were mainstreamed into regular classrooms then. When I did come in contact with someone with a visible disability, though, I admit I shied away. I remember being intimidated, not because I was trying to be mean, but because I was unsure about how to act around them.
I ended up getting my degree in Speech-Language Pathology because I really wanted to make a difference in people’s lives (but knew I wasn’t cut out to be a nurse or a doctor). The first semester that I was required to do clinical rotation, I met and worked with more adults with disabilities than I’d ever interacted with previously. Through my experiences, I learned how unfounded my childhood uncertainty of people with disabilities was.
I don’t want my children to take as long as I did to know what they are missing out on if they do not interact with these types of individuals.
I want my children to greet individuals with disabilities just like they’d greet any of their other friends. Ideally, I want my kids to be kind and hold doors for them, give them compliments and encouragement, to be a good friend to them and maybe have the courage to stand up to other kids aren’t who aren’t as accepting.
So as my children get older, we will have discussions about what makes some people who they are.
I think the best way a parent can teach children to be accepting of others is to be a good example when in public by saying hello, smiling, and being generally kind to anyone they may come in contact with, whether they have a visible disability or not.
After months of interacting with this charming young man when we are given the chance, my daughter is reacting more positively; her looks of confusion and fear are diminishing. She has even started to smile at him the last couple of times. As for me, I am grateful our lives have crossed paths. He may think he’s just performing his job duties for the good of his workplace and its customers, but he’s also helping me teach my daughter an important lesson about acceptance.