Over the years I have had many experiences with people as they have watched my special needs daughter, Emmalene. In this episode, I share an episode with you where another child asked what was wrong with my daughter in a negative way. I then share six things I would like to offer to parents to help them teach their kids how to interact with people with disabilities.
“What’s wrong with HER?” she asked with disdain in her voice. I stood there for a few seconds in shock that she had asked about my special daughter in such a negative way. The mama bear in me went into high gear. I caught myself, softened my heart and answered that my daughter’s legs didn’t work very well so she needed a special chair to help her move around. I don’t really remember what else I said but the girl seemed satisfied and ran off to do other things while I tried to recover from the emotions of the rudeness of the way the girl had asked her question.
We were at Pretend City, in California, a wonderful place for children that is set up as a kid sized city where kids can pretend they are mailing something at the post office, checking out books at the library or serving as the clerk at the grocery store. I had seen the girl moving around the tiny city with her father. I can still remember standing in the living room of the little house when she asked that question, the way she asked it. Her dad stood off to the side, totally embarrassed and pretending he had not heard and that she was not with him. He could have stepped in and just been a silent support during the conversation but he didn’t. Why? I would expect a parent to step up. I’m sure he was mortified and had no idea what to do with his impetuous child. I don’t really know.
Over the years, my daughter and I have had many, many times when kids have asked such questions. I have watched as some parents, embarrassed, have shushed their child and quickly walked away. I have had other parents guide their children and navigate the conversation in an interested, non-offensive way. We have always welcomed that.
So, how do we help our kids be sensitive to those with special needs, whether physical or emotional? How do we help them develop empathy and understanding? Here are 6 simple suggestions:
1-Your kids will model you. I have watched as parents have handled the situation with grace and used it to teach their kids how to respond with grace. Hopefully, they followed up afterward and talked with their kids more in depth.
2-Teach your kids there is nothing wrong with being curious but how we handle that curiosity makes a difference.
3-As the parent, be present and part of the conversations when you are with them during such conversations.
4-Talk about empathy and how to show it. We should show empathy to everyone we meet. There is a difference between pity and empathy. No one wants to be pitied. We are all different. Some just have differences that are more difficult or obvious. How do we teach empathy to our kids?
When my kids were all young, we would sometimes have a family night and I would have them try out what it would feel like to have a disability. They tried walking around blind folded and doing other things. You could have your kids spend an hour blind folded and try to get dressed or do their homework or chores. Have them pretend they can’t walk and scoot around the house in an office chair. Ask them how they would get down the stairs or what would happen if they were in their office chair and were invited to a friend’s house but there were stairs. Or maybe see if they want to try going for a couple of hours with one hand tied behind their back and when they can finally loosen their hand, realize they have the choice but other people don’t. How would it feel if you were always the one uninvited to the parties and trips to the movies just because you are different?
5-Acknowledge the difficulty of the other person and be matter of factly helpful. Like saying, “Oh, gosh, it must be hard to open that door, let me help you.”
6-Instead of just staring, engage with the person. Acknowledging them as another human being by simply smiling and saying “hello” goes a very long way. Then, if it is more than just a momentary passing between two people, start a conversation, “I’ve seen you around school before. What grade are you in?”
My daughter is in a wheelchair, she drools, her left arm does not work well, and she communicates in American Sign Language. Sometimes people see her and are at a loss as to what to say or do or offer. The answer is simple: she wants the same things your kids want. She wants to be a part of the fun, in any way she can. She wants to talk about school, movies, boys and social media. This sweet little girl has hopes and dreams and wishes for her life, just like all kids. She laughs and cries and thinks the same as most people. She feels love and compassion and fear just like all kids. She just shares these things differently.
Let me tell you about Lily…
Lily and my daughter met when Lily and her mom visited us to welcome us into the neighborhood almost eight years ago..
From that moment on, Emmalene loved Lily.
She learned American Sign Language, made a special effort to include Emmalene in things and invited her to visit at her house, wheelchair and all! She was a real friend to Emmalene.
Lily even nominated her to be in the show Random Acts TV and Emmalene’s ballerina dreams came true in the episode “Ballerina Dream”.
Lily moved away for a while but has since moved closer and the photo above is a recent picture of them together.
We are so grateful to Lily who saw past Emmalene’s disabilities and has validated and loved her as a person.
My daughter is an absolute JOY to be around, and those who do not take the time to get to know her, or the many, many other incredible people with disabilities, are really missing out.
Remind your kids that special needs kids want the same things they do; to have fun, fit in, to do well in school, to be happy and have friends.
They are more than their disabilities and want you to see past the disabilities and see them as the beautiful human beings that they are.