My uncle is a special man and not because he has special needs or requires special care. My uncle is special because he has a heart like no other.
Born with an intellectual disability, his life hasn’t always been easy. He’s been misunderstood, prematurely judged, overlooked, and disrespected. But the thing is, you’d never know it by looking at him. With hopeful eyes and a perpetual smile, my uncle is a person the world would be lucky to know. He’s funny, mischievous, loyal, and kind. He loves animals, James Brown, washing cars, and strawberry milkshakes. But of all his favorite things, family has always topped the list.
My kids formed a special bond with their great-uncle from a very young age. They enjoyed joking around with him, playing outside with him, and creating masterpieces for him. As they grew older and became increasingly aware of his special needs, they asked questions. What happened to him? Why can’t he drive a car? Why does he need someone to help take care of him?
Sometimes our answers led to more questions. Sometimes our answers made them sad.
“It doesn’t seem fair,” my son once told me. “He’s a lot older than me and I can do some things he can’t.”
“True,” I told him, “but he can do some things you can’t.”
“Like what?” he asked.
“Oh, lots of things, but the coolest is probably that he knows everything about locks. How they’re made. How they work. He knows so much, he could probably pick any lock you can find.”
“THAT IS SO COOL!”
It is cool, but far beyond any “cool” penchant for locks, there are 5 distinct lessons having a special needs family member has taught my kids:
1. A person is more than their diagnosis.
While a diagnosis provides my uncle with the specialized treatment and services he needs, his diagnosis has never been the whole of who he is. First, and above all else, he’s a person with a gentle heart and a sensitive soul. He misses his father who passed away eight years ago. He cares about his friends and how they’re feeling. He’s happy, helpful, capable, and tender. While others may focus on the can’ts of his life, what he does with the cans matters so much more.
2. Individuals with special needs enjoy the same things they do.
Who doesn’t love a funny joke or beautiful weather? My kids discovered early on that their great-uncle appreciates many of the same things they do. Whether it’s a hamburger the size of their head, restored vintage cars, or tossing a football around there’s simply so much to enjoy together.
3. We are never too busy or important to slow down.
While adaptive skills vary among individuals with intellectual disabilities, our need for patience and understanding should not.
4. People will always judge what they don’t understand.
Unfortunately, it’s not unusual for people to stare when we’re out with my uncle. He carries himself with poor posture and shuffles his feet when he walks. He talks quietly to himself and doesn’t always remember to take his turn. There are kids who point and say things and parents that hold their children close, but we have to remind ourselves that people are limited by their own understanding. The people who judge don’t know him or how good, kind, and smart he is. And it’s truly their loss.
5. We have so much to learn from him.
(And not just about locks.) We can all learn a lot about kindness from this man who chooses to forgive people who have wronged him, help those who may not always deserved it, and put the happiness of others above himself. My kids are fortunate to be surrounded by people they can look up to — folks who’ve earned impressive educations, acquired great wealth, and even overcome great odds. But when it comes to recognizing the true value and reach of the human heart, they’re lucky to have him.