The most pervasive stereotype about people with disabilities is the belief that their lives are so different from an “ordinary” person’s.
Individuals with special needs are every bit as ordinary as you or me, and we need to remember that in spite of their challenges, they are people first, just like everybody else.
I am the mother of two children with Down syndrome, and strangers frequently ask me how I want my kids to be treated. While I appreciate the honest concern and understand that some people don’t have any experience around kids with special needs, my response is always the same:
I want my kids to be treated as if they are no different than any other child.
Because they’re not.
In a world of diversity, we’re all different. As a parent, it’s my job to raise responsible, accountable Citizen Kids – just like any other mom or dad. It makes no difference that my Citizen Kids have special needs.
But as they say, it takes a village to raise a Citizen Kid, and part of my job is making sure all parents have the information they need to understand that disability is just a natural part of life.
Here are a few ideas I would like to share with parents everywhere:
1. Look the child in the eye.
Too often, we assume that a disability defines a person. As a result, people tend to direct any questions or conversation to the parent instead of simply asking the child himself. Would you do the same if the child didn’t have an obvious disability? Most likely not. Now, I’m not saying that every child with a disability has the ability to engage in a typical conversation, but regardless, please don’t ignore them or act like they don’t exist.
Living in an inclusive world means that every human being gets the chance to try his or her best, to utilize their individual abilities in order to feel like part of the community.
Imagine what my kids learn when you give them the opportunity to engage. They feel respected and included, and they learn to have faith in themselves – a skill that’s only achieved when they are treated as individuals with no labels.
2. Please, no pity.
Living with a disability isn’t always easy, but it’s also not a life-shattering hardship. There’s a common misconception that people with special needs are always dependent on others, which can be a heavy burden. But having children or a loved one with a disability isn’t the end of the world for anyone. It’s merely a circumstance, like anything else. One that is highly impacted by personal attitude, self-esteem, and opportunities that people receive in order to succeed.
People with a disability don’t need pity or shame. Instead, they need their rights to be respected, accommodations to be fulfilled, but most of all, they need to be surrounded by open-minded people who celebrate their unique abilities instead of pointing out their disabilities.
3. Don’t assume their behavior is tied to their disability.
Have you ever seen a child with special needs throw a temper tantrum? It’s nothing different from any other child having a meltdown, yet it’s not uncommon to get uncomfortable looks from bystanders.
Although some diagnoses do carry a higher risk of behavior problems or sensory issues, please be aware that many times, kids are just being kids, and their reactions, tantrums, or behaviors aren’t necessarily related to an underlying issue.
If you are an educator, a professional, or just a concerned citizen, remember that there’s no single foolproof way to handle a child in the midst of a meltdown, regardless of whether you’re dealing with kids who have special needs.
Instead of pigeonholing their behavior, take the opportunity to get to know them as individuals. It will help you learn to redirect, refocus, and reframe challenging situations – the same as you would with any child.
My thoughts don’t necessarily represent those of every parent or human being with a disability, but that’s just another example of how different we all are.
Simply by reading this article, you are making a positive difference in the lives of many families who feel represented by these words. We are all “normal” and we all deserve to be treated with respect.
The best thing you can do for any person, regardless of their abilities, is give them a chance to let their voice be heard and give them a say in how they want to be treated.