Schools, childcare facilities and most recreation facilities promote full inclusion in classrooms and programs. This means all children—despite their physical or developmental needs—are fully included together. As a mother to a special needs child, I applaud this! We all want what’s best for our kids and for them to get the most out of their childhood. We hope they get to experience the feeling of having a best friend, a first love, the feeling of being a part of something greater than themselves, but most of all, we want them to be accepted.
But what if they are different? Being different is perfectly ok. We all are, in our own ways, uniquely and beautifully different. But what if those differences cause us to move awkwardly; or impede our speech; cause us to lose control of our emotions; prevent us from establishing social connections or have us rely on specialized equipment like wheelchairs, leg braces and walkers? What if our differences compromise our ability to be accepted? How do we change these societal perceptions? Children have wonderful, curious little minds. They often learn from their peers and can immediately spot similarities and differences, between each other.
I remember one time, while visiting the park with my children, a little girl walked over to me and my daughter Olivia. Olivia was about four and was sitting on the ground with me, playing in the sand. The little girl asked if Olivia could come and run with her. I told her Olivia couldn’t run, but that she loved digging in the sand and if she’d like to, she could also dig with Olivia. The little girl thought about it for a moment, you could see the wheels really turning in her little mind. Her eyes gazed down at Olivia’s legs and then she asked, “She has legs, how come she can’t run?”
By this time the mother of the little girl began walking towards us, and I could tell by the look on her face, she was embarrassed by her daughter’s question. I smiled and said, “Well, Olivia can’t run because she has something called Cerebral Palsy. That means, her brain was hurt when she was a baby and it caused her legs to not work like they should.” The little girl seemed satisfied with that answer, plunked down next to Olivia and began building castles with her in the sand. For the remaining time at the park, Olivia and this little girl smiled and had fun. My daughter was accepted, in spite of her differences, because an opportunity to educate another child about Olivia’s condition arose.
Inclusion, as well as opportunities to discuss differences, is essential in our society to assist in our understanding of one another. This is why I believe awareness days like World Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day, World Down Syndrome Day, and Autism Awareness are just as essential to our children’s education as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, International Women’s Day, Anti-Bullying Day and Black History Month.
If we hope to overcome prejudices, ignorance and social injustice, we need to teach our children compassion, empathy, equality and acceptance. The subject of disability and special needs is still somewhat of a “dirty” word in our society. It’s as though people are afraid to ask questions, in fear of offending someone. Let me tell you something, silence is always more offensive. Silence doesn’t change things. It’s doesn’t create opportunities or start conversations around equal rights. We can all take a page from the book of our children. One thing kids are never, is silent and lacking in questions.
Our children are eager to learn from one another and at the end of the day, all they care about is I want to play with this little girl/little boy…how do I do that? If we teach them about their peers, they will instinctively meet their peer in the middle and successfully play together. This initial inclusive connection is a profound foundational building block in changing our society’s future. It is an enriching connection that is mutually beneficial.
As the great Helen Keller once put it, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”