Having a child with a disability is a wonderful experience, yet it comes with both similar and dissimilar challenges that other parents experience. On one hand, parents may have vast array of medical issues to contend with throughout the child’s life. One of the most worrying thoughts is about who will care for or be the guardian of one’s precious baby when they are grown and the parents have gone, if they will need such. Yet, in a greater number of ways that child is no different than any other. This is true not only in respect to that child being the light of that family’s life and bring immeasurable amounts of joy to the world, but also in their own need to be acknowledged by society. As we come into the holiday season, now is a wonderful time to reflect on how we view and interact with those in our community who’s only wish is many times to be seen as a valuable and wanted member of society. However, that is a challenge for us all as we look in the mirror, to question ourselves and our actions. While we are currently putting an ever increasing focus on inclusion in schools, are we truly an inclusive society?
I learned a valuable lesson, years prior to having a child with Down syndrome. Volunteering at an equi-therapy center, where we utilized horses as a form of therapy for those of all ages with disabilities, the director mentioned one of the most traumatic experiences for those individuals on a daily basis was others looking away. Yes, I often did this up until that point. What have we been taught from a young age when we encounter someone with a disability? We are taught not to stare. Combining that with the fact that some individuals we encounter may speak different, slower, or may be non-verbal, often the response from even the average good-hearted person is to look away. This is often not because there is a lack of desire to connect or to be mean spirted, but rather because we don’t know how to interact with someone with a disability, simply because we previously have not. However, what we are also taught from a young age is to put yourselves in others’ shoes.
Of course, I don’t mean we all need to go out and begin volunteering at a center that assists individuals with disabilities, although that would be wonderful and is greatly needed. Rather, let us picture a setting such as the grocery store. Yet, instead of picturing yourself running into someone who has Down syndrome or Autism, for moment, picture yourself as that individual. Now consider the majority of people you make eye-contact with, if you are that lucky, quickly turning away. Perhaps, a quick smile if you are lucky, but rarely a “hello”, or dare I say a, “how are you?” Because engaging means that we would have to learn to be tolerant of someone who may not carry on a typical conversation or possibly not a fast. Yet, from their perspective, they are probably not putting that internal dialogue together as we are here, but simply questioning, “why do they not want to look at me?” As we have all been shunned by our friends or acquaintances at some point in our life, we understand the feeling, but unlike many others that do have disabilities, we do not have to experience this as an ongoing trend.
The solution is simple, but needs to be taught, just as it was taught to me. The simplest gesture can make someone’s whole day look brighter, with little effort from us. Simply look and smile, engage them in the simplest conversation, asking them their name and how they are doing. Let them know that you are glad they are there, and offer them the same humanity we all seek in this world. My wife and I have been blessed by a groups of friends we met in the Down Syndrome Association of South Texas. But after hearing a recent story about a boy with Autism, who had a birthday party where no one showed up from his school, it reminds me of how little effort it takes to not look away. I would not change my son for anything in this world, he is perfect as he is, reach out to someone who perfect as they are this Christmas and beyond.