Friday, March 2, 2012

Explaining Other People's Disabilities to Your Child

Ellen Seidman who writes Love That Max, has a very interesting post up this morning. She asked several prominent bloggers and special needs activists what they would say to the world about their children. She writes:

Nowhere in my mom job description does it list "Educate other parents." But sure enough, that's become part of what I do as the parent of a kid with special needs. It hasn't always come easy, and over the years I've gotten better at it. Not a master, but better. ..Read the rest HERE.


In all honesty this post started me thinking about something very different. How do we teach our children about other's disabilities? In fact a recent episode in school with CM2 basically illustrates this issue.

In CM2's English class is a youngman with cerebral palsy. This student is wheelchair bound and has a speech impediment. For CM2 this is a problem. He has an auditory processing disorder which makes it hard to interpret oral statements to begin with and when someone can't speak without problems that adds to CM2's confusion. The person doesn't even have to have a speech impediment, infact they only need to have a different accent than he is used to for CM2 to basically lose it.

Not being able to understand for him leads to frustration, aggravation and shutdown. As I have mentioned before he doesn't  persevere when he is confronted with issues, he turns off the world around him. So when this youngman started to speak and add to the class discussion CM2 turned to his para and kept asking what was going on. He couldn't follow so he decided to take a nap in class. Luckily he didn't yell at the other student to talk clearly or that he made no sense.

The para told me what happened and I had a talk with CM2. He told me about the other student.

"I think he is retarded," he told me.

"First of all," I said to him, "You know we don't use that word in this house."

"Oh yeah right, sorry."

"Second, he had to be as smart as you to get into this school. He had to take the same tests and he needs to produce just like you do to stay in school. So no he does not have an intellectual disability."

"But he makes no sense when he talks."

"He has a speech impediment. The person has cerebral palsy. It means that his body was hurt when he was born, but it doesn't mean he isn't smart or doesn't have feelings."

"I didn't know."

"I know you didn't know. That is why I am telling you."

I know that CM2 feels uncomfortable when he deals with people who have visible disabilities. This yougnman is not the first person CM2 has encountered who has CP or a physical disability. He didn't handle it well then and while  there was some intervention in highschool, they simply kept him away from the other student rather than teaching him how to accept the student with CP. Obviously the highschool didn't handled CM2's annoyance as well as they should have and I thinking the issue had been solved let the matter drop.

In truth, CM2, like most people,  doesn't know how to act or what to say when talking with a person with a physical disability. I know it is hard for him. CM2 has social issues to begin with because of the aspergers and dealing with different situations where he is given no real instruction on what to do is beyond his ability. No one ever told him that he was to just talk to a person with a visible disability like he talks to everyone else. He thought he had to do something special. No one told him that he needs no kid gloves, and that there is no need to beat around the bush. No one told him that there is nothing to be afraid of. No one told him that those with physical disabilities are people, just people.

"Think of it this way," I said, "How would you like it if people were mean to you because you had aspergers. Wouldn't that hurt your feelings?"

"Yes," he nodded too.

"So don't be mean to him because he has a disability. I want you to be nice to him. Try saying hello."


After the next class I asked CM2 if he had been nice to the other student. He said he wasn't mean to him. But he didn't say hello or anything. 

"Ignoring someone because they have a disability is just as bad as being mean to them. You don't have to have a conversation with the other student, but you need to acknowledge his presence. He is another person afterall." (Yes I would like CM2 to talk to this youngman like he talks to everyone else, but honestly he too has to take things in his own time as well.)

So the next class I asked CM2 if he was nice to the other student. Again, he didn't say anything. I reminded him of our last conversation. Then there was the next class.

He happily announced that he had said "hello" and was nice. I told CM2 I was proud of him and that it was a good thing that he did. The para related to me what had happened.

CM2 and the para were sitting in class and it was about to begin. Now the class is arranged in a semi-circle so everyone can see each other during class discussions. CM2 realized that the other student was sitting across from him and asked the para what the boy's name was. CM2 then called out in the middle of class and yelled "hello" and waved.

Of course the other student had no idea where that had come from and neither did anyone else. But the para knew and I knew that this was CM2 trying to be friendly and learning to be respectful of others. It was not an easy thing for my son to remember and not an easy thing for him to do. But he did it. For him it was a milestone. For him it was an act of kindness. For him, he was trying to be a mensch.

Now others in the class may not have understood and I am not certain that the other student whom CM2 was trying to be kind too understood either. But social skills are not the easiest for either of my children and understanding other disabilities are not so easy for them either. Yet CM2 learned an important lesson. His is not the only kind of disability on the planet and you should not judge a book, and especially another person, by their cover. Kindness comes in all shapes and forms. As a human being you are obligated to be respectful, inclusive and compassionate to all in this world.

So as we teach the world to understand our children, as Ellen Seidman wrote, I think we need to remember to teach our children that everyone with special needs does not look like them. That they, our children,  are just as obligated to be kind to those individuals whom they don't understand, as the world is obligated to be kind to them.

Until next time,