Did you hear about the waiter in Texas who put his job on the line when he defended a boy with Down syndrome?
This story is both heartbreaking and inspiring. It reminds us all that taking a stand against prejudice can be difficult in a society that isn’t always accepting and welcoming of people with special needs. After all, a child with special needs deserves respect, kindness and inclusion just like any other child.
While this might seem obvious, it is often not the case and many children with disabilities – and their parents – feel judged and isolated. And not to mention overwhelmed!
Prior to motherhood and blogging, I was a social worker within the field of disability. I learned not only about the struggles facing children with disabilities, but the many roadblocks they come across in society.
From the stares, to the exclusion, to the isolation, to the financial struggles, to the learned helplessness — it can be a lonely existence.
But I’m calling upon all of us to rise above – get out of your bubble – and see the person for who they are, regardless of their diagnosis or label.
Here’s a few tips on how to support families who are living with special needs:
- When a friend or family member gives birth to a child with special needs, congratulate them! Never avoid or say ‘Sorry.’ Pity is not needed when a child is born into this world.
- If you don’t know much about a child’s condition, ask the parent. If the parent replies in anger, that’s OK, but if the parent seems open to the discussion, ask how you can learn more (e.g. websites or books).
- Get rid of the word ‘handicap.’ I hate to be the PC police, but this outdated phrase originates from “cap-in-hand” which refers to begging on the street. And while we’re on the topic, let’s not define a person by their disability (e.g. the autistic boy vs. the boy with autism).
- Don’t apologize to the parent about their child’s condition. A child is nothing to be sorry for – every child is a blessing.
- Ask the parent how they are doing. Talk to the child. Get your kids to do the same.
- Take a look within yourself. Do you feel uncomfortable around people with disabilities? Are you avoiding that mom and her child? If so, what is that about?
- Offer to help in any way you can (e.g. prepare a meal, arrange a playdate, provide childcare, organize a fundraiser). Insist on helping, don’t just offer.
- Get to know the parent and the child. We’re all just people and we all have our abilities and our dis-abilities. Maybe your ability is to lead your community by example?
- Be there for support, in any way. Often an open ear is all a mother needs. After all, she has a lot going on with medical appointments, various therapy sessions (OT, PT, etc.), and perhaps even financial struggles to pay for specialists and any equipment needs.
- Stop making fun of people with disabilities. Stop the jokes and stop the judgements. When you judge that kid and mom in the grocery store, you really have no idea what might be going on in their lives.
In closing, I’d like to share a very moving piece by fellow blogger, Maria Lin of the Huffington Post. As a proud mom of a child with special needs, Lin reminds us to really see the child and not the disability.
“See my child. Don’t stare. But also don’t look away or avoid,” Lin writes. “My deepest wish is for you to see my child the way I see him. Look into his eyes. Observe him with love. See him. Get to know him. Include him, hang out with him, get your kids to do the same.
Learn how to treat him with dignity and the profoundest respect, because a wise woman once told me that in some cultures, special needs children are seen as the human form closest to perfection and God, because they are no longer here on earth to learn, but to teach. In these cultures, the elders all bow down when a special needs child enters the room. Oh, but that we might become one of those cultures!”
She adds: “One of the most hurtful things for me as a special needs parent has been seeing others, even my friends, uncomfortable or awkward around my son. Please find a way to start really seeing and loving my child. It might start with spending more time with him.”