If you have social media, you’ve probably seen videos of someone with Down syndrome opening his or her acceptance letter to college, a girl with Down syndrome finding out she made the cheerleading team, someone with special needs being crowned prom queen or king, or someone with Autism being asked to prom. When people see these videos, their response is usually, “OMG that’s amazing that they can do that too” but people who are involved with the special needs world are not surprised because we see what they are capable of on a daily basis.
First, it is important to know that children with special needs are just like any other child their age, but may communicate a different way or take longer to complete a task. We can also pay attention to the words we use and how it might affect the person they are being directed towards.
We were taught from a young age, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” This pertains to everyone and not just your close friends. For example, we need to quit using the R word. [For the sake of all being on the same page, the R word is “retarded”.] When someone uses this word, he or she phrases it in a negative way, usually to mean ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’. Think about this, are the adjectives ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’ only related to IQ? No, because someone can be a brilliant artist but terrible with directions.
I have met many brilliant people with special needs (who some may use the R word to describe). I babysit a little girl who is kind, funny, smart, and silly…and also has Down syndrome! Almost all of my friends have personally met her (and fallen in love with her). I love introducing her to others because it gives them an opportunity to realize that she is just like any other 4 year old! She can cartwheel, walk a balance beam, do a pullover on her ‘nastic bars’ (gymnastics bars), and even do more pull-ups than I can do. We love to swing on the swings at the park, play hairdresser, sing songs together, and cheer for our favorite team. In a classroom of 20 typically developing 4 year olds, she is in the top 5 and she does not even qualify for special services due to her academic scores being so high. Honestly, we can find a different adjective to describe people who are human and have feelings just like everyone else.
When a parent is told that their child has a diagnosis or disability, almost immediately the physicians tell the parents what that child will not be able to do throughout his or her lifetime. What if we approach people with special needs in a way that highlights what they CAN do? Just because someone has Autism, does not mean that that person will not be able to form meaningful relationships…maybe it just takes more practice and working at it. The same goes for someone who is short; just because they are short does not mean they’ll never be able to dunk a basketball, it may just take more practice and effort.
I once interned at a special education preschool; one day the children were all playing outside and hula-hooping. I observed a child who was watching them and it was obvious that this child wanted to participate as well. Only here’s the thing, this child was using a walker due to having Cerebral Palsy. Now, one could have redirected the child and maybe interested him in another activity that he could have done more easily, but I walked over to him and placed the hula-hoop over him and his walker and shook it around his waist while he wiggled his upper body with excitement. We laughed and did this many times. Even though it wasn’t the exact same hula-hooping as his peers, it was clear to me that he was feeling the same joy his friends were experiencing!
It is important to not be so quick to assume that just because someone has a disability means that they are not capable of things. If you have the opportunity to interact with someone who has a disability, take the time. You truly learn best by experiencing.
So, now I’m sure you are wondering what can you do. Not everyone is working in a field that places him or her in direct contact with children with special needs. Luckily, I am one of those few because I am currently working on my Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy. This profession empowers children and adults to be independent in their daily lives. I have the desire to work with children with special needs and look forward to giving them some of the tools they need to be the best version of themselves. It is my passion to be an advocate for others and I love educating people about how we as humans are more alike than different.
I would encourage everyone to look and find a place to volunteer. I volunteer with an organization that enables people of ALL abilities the opportunity to play baseball. The dugouts are wheelchair accessible, the bases are ground level, and there are other adaptations so that all players can participate in baseball to the best of their ability while still having fun. I currently live in the East Alabama area and there are many other organizations to volunteer with like Best Buddies and Storybook Farms.
The mission of Best Buddies is to establish a global volunteer movement that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment, and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Storybook Farms serves children and young adults who are challenged with life-threatening illnesses, disabilities, mental and/or emotional trauma, and grief. This organization utilizes the gentle nature of the horses to provide hope and healing to these populations.
**You’ll notice throughout this I did not say, “special needs kid”, “Downs boy”, or “Autistic girl” because in the special needs world, we like to refer to our friends with a disability using “person first language.” First and foremost, they are people…just like you and me. So, we put the person first and the disability second.
If you come into contact with someone who has a disability, be sure to say ‘hey!’ and ask how his or her day is going. Basically, treat them just as you would anyone else.