A few months back Liberty, Ruby and I were walking through a department store. As we walked down the long aisle together we were talking and laughing – all three of us clearly enjoying our little shopping adventure.
The aisle happened to be one of the larger ones, running perpendicular to all the little aisles and so it was probably 15 feet wide. As we walked the length of the store, I noticed a pretty young girl, about 12-years-old walking toward us, her eyes locked on Ruby. Although the girl’s eyes never left Ruby, the closer we got to her, to our amazement she turned sideways and sidestepped as she walked by sucking her breath in (although we were still at least 12 feet from her). She sidestepped as though Ruby was in some way contagious. Ruby was not squealing or even making a peep.
The entire encounter, which was no encounter at all, left my heart very broken on so many levels. What a disservice her parents have done for her!
How very disturbing, disheartening and sad that a girl her age would be so afraid she would sidestep and suck her breath in while still 10 feet from a little girl in a pink wheelchair. It was completely mind-boggling.
And although many thoughts have swirled around my head, here’s what I do know: Parents talk to your kids about people in wheelchairs. Explain that there are many, many reasons that a person may be using a wheelchair – from a genetic disorder to an accident. There are many possibilities! Explain that people in wheelchairs are exactly like them – they just have wheels to get them from place to place! Please also explain that whatever reason a person may be in a wheelchair, they are definitely not contagious!
Parents please discuss with your children that some people are non-verbal or may only say a few words but they still love to be talked to!! Explain that non-verbal people still communicate in many other ways. Sometimes they just say a few words, some use a few signs, some use motions, some use assistive devices, while others use their eyes or a myriad of other possible ways they communicate. People who live with them understand them best because they have learned to understand all their ways of talking! (Ruby “talks” to us all day long, and if you think she doesn’t have an opinion – you are so wrong! She has an opinion about everything! She also loves to play pranks on us and she loves to make us laugh!)
Parents please make a point to spend time as a family with people who have special needs. The very best way to really help your kids love people in wheelchairs or non-verbal friends or friends with autism or with cerebral palsy is to spend time with them!! They will then learn, first hand, that people in wheelchairs or non-verbal friends or friends with autism or friends with down syndrome are fun, smart, kind, love some of the same things they love and that most of all they enjoy having friends too – because they really are just like them!
Over Thanksgiving when Abigail and Ryan and their three boys were here, I happened to hear three-year-old Indio talking to Ruby. My eyes welled up with tears as I grabbed my cell to try to capture a few pictures…all the while I could hear him asking her, “Ruby, did you see I hurt my finger? Look at it…Ruby did you see it?” Clearly Indio already has a tender place in his heart for treasures with special needs and spending time with Auntie Ruby will only develop a deeper love for people with broken bodies. The pictures also prove how Ruby loves Indio! She beamed as he talked to her.
Now in case you are thinking, “Actually Linny, I am not super comfortable with people with special needs so I don’t think I can really talk to my kids about it….” Friends, the time is now – get comfortable!
If you don’t know anyone with special needs, then you are probably living in a bubble, because there are 56 million people living in America with disabilities. I have no clue what that number takes into consideration, but I do know that 1 in 68 kids have autism. It’s estimated that 500,000 people in America have cerebral palsy like our Ruby and Johnny both have. It’s also estimated that 166,000 live with spina bifida in America (which is what Johnny also has). Stats also say that there are 1 million people in America with hydrocephalus (which is also what Ruby has). There are 400,000 living with down syndrome in America (which is what our Birdie has). Not to mention all the other special needs. If you don’t know anyone with disabilities, ask God to open the door to meet someone. It’s a privilege to hang out with a family who has a special needs member in it.
Then, have the family over – even for just a game night and hot chocolate. Or a picnic at the park. Or dinner. As a mom of many special needs treasures, I know invites to people’s homes are slim. We have a couple precious friends who readily welcome us, but they are the exception. (Of course there are lots of us, but you get the idea!)
In our special needs small group at our church (Oh how I love our church) one of the common threads is the isolation that is felt as a family with a child with special needs. It’s time to change the loneliness and isolation friends! It’s time to open our arms and love others, as Christ told us to do. In the process you, your family, your children will become more tender as you love others together. Which reminds me of a verse which I paraphrase a bit: Love others, just like you would want others to love your child if he or she were the one in a wheelchair or with autism or with cerebral palsy or with down syndrome or with any other disability. Loving like Jesus loves always wins.