My First Time Meeting Someone With A Disability And Why it Was Wrong
The first time I met someone with a disability was in elementary school. Third grade.
And it was a horrible experience. I was scared, confused, and told that we were doing a good thing by letting her be there. But I do not blame the parent at all. If anything, she was way before her time. Trying to be inclusive. Trying to normalize disability. Let me explain.
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My First Encounter
This all started at my friend's birthday party. All of the party go-ers started to arrive and when the last one arrived, the birthday girl's mom sat us all down to talk about another party guest. Her mom told us that Becky (names have been changed) is another friend of the birthday girl's. Her mom said something like,
"So we have another friend coming who has a disability. Her parents never get a night out so I told them that Becky can stay and I will be with her. If you get scared, let me know and I will take her somewhere else."
Now looking back at this moment, she could have said something more appropriate, more inclusive, less terrifying. But my little 8-year-old brain interpreted it that way.
“This moment planted a seed in my brain that has grown into a bigger and more beautiful thing than I could ever imagine.” -Me
Becky got to her house and we all quietly staired and tried not to make any comments. The birthday girl said hi and we began to play again and ignore the situation. It was then time to go to the pool. We all got dressed in our bathing suits, Becky needed help from the birthday girl's mom. I had no idea why.
Then we went to the pool.
The pool was the only time Becky and I were ever within arm's length of each other. Becky had floaties on and was swimming around the pool and I was trying to subtly move away from her whenever she came near. Eventually, when I was distracted from keeping watch, Becky came up from behind me and started gripping onto me. She started pulling me down and I was flailing my arms frantically to get out of her grasp as I was in the deep end without any floaties keeping me up. When I finally got out of her reach, I was gasping for air and looking around, shocked no one saw Becky attack me! I was terrified and didn't keep my eyes off of her after that. I also have the vague memory of the mom telling me she was trying to give me a hug. I did not want one from her.
Fast Forward to Today.
I look back at that memory every day. That birthday party means so much to me and is the foundation of why I do what I do. Here are some tips to follow when introducing someone with a #disability to people who have never been around people with a disability.
“If you really want to get along with someone, let them be themselves.”
Keep it positive
When introducing a classroom to the idea that someone with a disability will be joining them, say things like
"We have a new friend joining our classroom."
"They sometimes get excited and get pretty loud, if it's too loud for you, you can walk away and take a break."
When the parent told us that if we were scared, to let her know, my first thought was, "is it scary??" That initial statement put the word "scared" in my head and I was searching for a scary moment. Not a happy one.
Explain the situation
Be open and honest about the change. If children haven't been around anyone with a disability, don't pretend like it's nothing, but also don't make it a big deal. Explain that everyone is different. We have small differences and big differences. The great thing, is that we all are apart of this community. I have a whole ability awareness (the image with the puzzle) about this.
Use inclusive language
Disability. Down Syndrome. Autism. Behaviors. NONE OF THESE ARE BAD WORDS!!
These are all words that can be used to describe the situation, to explain a difference, and to teach children how to ask questions inclusively.
If a child says, "Why do scream? That's so scary!" You can say, "Sometimes Ted gets loud because he is excited to be working in this class and can't always control his volume. What can we do when Ted gets louder?" And then you can prompt the peers to recommend them telling Ted not to yell in a classroom and be the example for the appropriate volume level.
Don't OK behavior that made someone uncomfortable
I was very scared when Becky was trying to hold onto me in the pool. Being told that she was trying to hug me was dismissing the situation. If the steps before were in place, even if I still didn't feel comfortable saying I was afraid, the parent at this moment could have said, "Becky was getting really excited to swim with everyone. But that must have been surprising for you. Would you like me to help you talk Becky through a high five as a safer greeting instead?"
Give a safe place for questions and comments
Again, looking back at this whole experience, the mom sitting us down to talk to us about Becky was solid. How she did it? Not so much. If she explained the situation more clearly, positively, and inclusively we would have ended the conversation with this portion. Asking questions in a safe place. If no children are asking questions, you can answer some questions that people might be too nervous to ask.
Why are they like this?
What do I do if I get uncomfortable?
How can I talk to them?
What are things they do like?
How can we be a good friend to them?
If you ever have any questions on how to host an ability awareness in your classroom or with your children, don't hesitate to reach out to me for information or resources. Check out my instagram for more book recommendations or past blog posts for great resources!
Inclusion starts with you
& I just want to help