*Long Post Alert! And as always, thanks for allowing/putting up with the occasional ad.
A couple months ago I took the girls to get PSP registered at her new school. As I sat in line my mind started wandering... and I thought about PSP's new teacher. I wondered if we'd get to request a teacher or have one assigned to us. For some reason the thought came into my head, What if her new teacher were in a wheelchair? And my instant, gut reaction was: Oh no... I don't want her teacher to be in a wheelchair. To be very clear, this was not because I was worried if this hypothetical teacher would be able to preform her job functions correctly, this was because the thought of a wheelchair made me uncomfortable.
And about a half second later I thought, Did I just think that? How could I think that? Me out of all people. Me, who has a daughter with physical handicaps, a daughter who also has a powerchair. How could I, the mother of such an amazing daughter, the one who hosts a special needs spotlight on her blog, with the very direct effort of spreading the message of love and acceptance, think such a horrible thought?
Well, the answer is easy. I'm prejudiced. And I'm pretty sure you are too.
Of course, given a few minutes of thinking through it I knew I would have over-ridden my immediate reaction. In the long run, I know I would have been totally cool with and probably even really excited about the prospect of PSP having a teacher in a wheelchair. Regardless, my first instinct was No, I wouldn't want that, and I've been thinking a lot about that reaction ever since.
However, that's not even the worst of it. I met a woman a few months ago who also has a limb difference. Just one arm affected. As we stood there talking, about limb differences--about her and my daughter--I realized I was a little uncomfortable.... with her difference. While I no longer feel this way about her difference--in fact I think she's a wonderful person and I look forward to each and every time I see her--that slight discomfort was there. Even if just for a few minutes. This isn't the first time I've written about coming to terms with my prejudices, but I wrote about it in the past tense... like I used to have them. Now I'm facing the fact that I still have them.
Part 1. Thoughts about where these prejudices came from.
As much as I hate to admit it, I have some prejudices and these prejudices are embedded deep inside, starting from a very young age. I remember once being at a swimming pool as a kid and seeing an older boy with Down Syndrome splashing around wildly, angrily. No one would go near him and the lifeguards and his parents were trying to get him out of the pool. He was large and as a kid I remember his presence and size seemed menacing. I don't remember entire conversations but I remember snippets about him holding a kid under water and that his parents were brother and sister and that's why he was 'retarded.' When kids hear lies like that, it takes a while to unravel that lie from your brain. It was probably years before I understood that's not what makes someone 'retarded.' (ps Ann Coulter is boiling my blood right now and I'm sorry for each and every time I ever used that word...and especially when I tried to justify it.)
In general I would say most of my interactions with people who have special needs were probably during my school years. And when I say interactions I mean, looking at and noticing from a distance. I didn't really interact too much. In my defense, I don't think I had much opportunity. A while ago I was chatting with a friend of mine who used to teach special ed. I remember her making the comment that my daughter was lucky because I was going to be a hip mom that would dress her daughter in cute clothes and take good care of her. I remember her saying something like, Because when you dress a special needs kid in dirty sweats everyday, it just doesn't help the stereotypes. And I thought...By George, she's right. When I think about the special ed. kids I saw at school I remember so many of them being dressed similarly. And for some reason in my mind, I associated that with being poor. And in my mind, in placed I never really knew existed, I think I have somewhat associated people with special needs coming from low income families. Poor people. As if that mattered, but there it is. And again, in the back of my mind, in a place that I don't want to admit exists, I might have connected low income with low education, low health care and perhaps that had something to do with their special needs family members. I have tears in my eyes for typing that sentence.
I can remember many of these kids names from my childhood days and I bet you can too. There was Jason, who had some type of intellectual disabilities, but not Down Syndrome. There was Adam, who also was affected mentally but actually had some friends in the 'cool kids' crowd although sometimes I couldn't tell if they were laughing at him or with him. There was also Emma. A girl I went to church with who I was kind to on the surface (mostly) but in and out of church my interest in really being her friend was nonexistent. And behind her back we made fun of her quite a bit. And there were countless other kids I saw in hallways with teachers pushing them in wheelchairs, slobber running down their chins and hands curled up by their faces. I can't say that I knew them or took the time to get to know them, but they were there. Socially it's harder to connect with those who have mental limitations--especially as a teenager. And of course those kids went to different classes, so truly my ability to interact with most of them was limited. Yet those who I did interact with, like Emma, I could have and should have been better, kinder and more loving. To be fair, I was not and am not some sort of heartless monster. I definitely have an innate compassion and love for people--the two ideas are not mutually exclusive.
Finally, different is different. And sometimes, as much as we like to think we're open-minded and unafraid we can really be shaken, disturbed, quieted, uncomfortable and simply ignorant of those who are different. I remember what it was like knowing I was going to give birth to a baby who would look different from anyone I had ever known. I was worried that my immediate reaction would be one of hesitancy and not love. It wasn't. I loved that little babe with my whole heart and loved on those limbs the way any mother does with her babies. But the worry was there because I was not familiar with different. I was scared of different.
Part 2. Why am I telling you this?
A big part of my decision to host a special needs spotlight was because I wanted other people to see children with special needs the way we, their parents, see them. We love the same way we love our other kids, or the way you love your typical kids. We are grateful to be their parents. There is love, light, joy and laughter. But what I realized is that just because I am a special needs mom, I certainly don't have all the answers. The spotlights open my eyes as well, they are informative and educational for me. The spotlights have helped me know how to talk to other parents of children with special needs. Being 'in the club' has not made me an expert.
And clearly, I still have prejudices.
Socially speaking, the very idea of having any form of prejudice makes you a bad person. You cannot and do not admit to having them. It's more than just taboo. So if I can admit to you my prejudices--me, the mother of a daughter with special needs--then you can feel more at ease in admitting your prejudices. Which I hope will lead to self-reflection and perhaps a change in attitude and ultimately behavior. It's the ol' now you know and knowing is half the battle mentality. I wasn't really ready to admit to my prejudices until the teacher/wheelchair incident--and not admitting it was basically not knowing. Now that I know and have reflected and thought about it I can do and be better.
To be clear, there are different kinds of prejudice. There is ignorant prejudice, and there is hateful prejudice. I think few of us fall under the hateful category. But just because a lot of prejudice doesn't lead to hate and deplorable acts of violence and intolerance, prejudice even in it's most naive forms isn't good. Prejudice can lead to avoiding people and their families. Prejudice can lead to unkind thoughts and actions--ignoring, bullying, teasing. Prejudice can lead to exclusion, fear and name calling. Prejudice can lead to people not getting hired for jobs. And yes even naive prejudice can eventually lead to violence.
One of my readers posted a video a while ago about a woman, Cerrie Burnell, who hosts a children's television show in the UK and who happens to have a limb difference--missing the lower part of her right arm. I couldn't find the original video but you can watch a similar interview here or read this article here. Anyway, when she first appeared on this show many parents wrote in, expressing their frustration and anger that she would be allowed to host a TV for children. My daughter is scared, people wrote. How do we explain this to our kids? others said. I was actually quite horrified at this response, because this could be a reflection of my daughter's future. Well in this interview, the host Carrie was asked if she was surprised by the response. She said no. She wasn't surprised. She said this is quite typical of the prejudice that people with disabilities face every day. I was sort of stunned by her answer. She was absolutely not surprised one bit people felt this way about her. However she was happy for the dialogue it opened and said that it's a problem that people with disabilities face everyday, but one that people are reluctant to talk about.
Part 3. What can we do?
My first answer, is I don't know. This blog post is only going to do so much. Like "drop, in a drop, in a drop of a bucket" so much. But it's something. My hope is that anyone who reads it will seriously consider the prejudices they have. Please think about them. I don't care how liberal, open-minded you are...somewhere you have them. Perhaps you are uncomfortable with people of a different race, a different social class, people who are overweight or as discussed people with disabilities. Once acknowledged, the next step is to think about the extent to which those prejudices affect your thoughts and actions...and then think about how you can change them. For me I can honestly say that self-reflection has helped a lot. Once I recognized my feelings for what they were, and then asked myself Why are you feeling this way? What is making you uncomfortable? I was able to move past these apprehensions. I mean I doubt I'm cured forever, but I really do feel better about myself, other people and why I was thinking those thoughts and feeling those emotions in the first place. And now I know I have the guts to face them should they come up again.
Another BIG thing, that is almost always pointed out in the special needs spotlight is to talk to your kids about people who are different. Especially if they see another child with special needs. Do not, I repeat DO NOT, shush your child and rush them away. That confirms their fears that something is wrong, when it's not. That tells a child that they are not to concern themselves with people who are different. Open a dialogue and let your child ask their questions.
I told you this was long. Anyway, I don't have a tidy little closing for this whole thing, but I hope it's been helpful. I hope it was meaningful to someone out there. Feel free to share your thoughts and feelings on the subject. Although I've never really had this problem, I just ask you to please be kind in your comments.
So that's it. I'm prejudiced and so are you. Let's talk.