When my grandma was a child, her sister wasn’t allowed to go to school. She had Down syndrome and, believe it or not, was actually considered lucky for the time because she wasn’t institutionalized.
While we’ve come a long way since my grandma’s day, the world still hasn’t gotten used to the sight of people with disabilities. So they do one of two things: Stare or avoid eye contact at all costs.
As a parent of two disabled young adults, I have news for you: This kind of behavior is awkward and weird, at best, and hurtful and alienating at worst. And while you’re pretending my children don’t exist, your children are staring so intensely that I think they forgot how to blink.
Children are never too young to learn not to stare, and we as parents are never too old to reflect on the ways we interact with others in our community. Next time, instead of avoiding eye contact or pulling your children out of the way of my family, consider the following alternatives.
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Acknowledging my kids’ presence with a simple smile makes the difference between seeing them as an oddity and seeing them as another person. Be a model for your child and show them that people with disabilities deserve just as much courtesy and respect as anyone else.
Staring doesn’t always come from a place of disgust; it can come from a place of interest. Young children love one of my kid’s electric blue wheelchair and leg braces with butterflies on them. As an adult, facilitate a conversation, even if it’s just a passing compliment: “Wow, Junior! That wheelchair is your favorite color. How cool, right?!”
When we see our children staring, we may feel compelled to remove them from the situation and move on with our lives. Instead, reflect on why your child is so interested. Could it be because they have never seen someone with a disability before? As a parent, use books to expose your child to a world that they do not personally experience (a few ideas here, here and here). Then, have conversations with your children about the books they read.
In no way is this an invitation from every person with disabilities to be Facebook friends. It’s important to note, however, that people with disabilities are just that: People. The longer we stare or avoid any kind of contact, the bigger the gap is between “us” and “them.” If in any given situation you would normally make small talk with someone without a disability, what’s stopping you from engaging now?
No group of people should be studied or understood solely from the books we read. And no community will grow stronger without the genuine interaction of all of its members. If we want our children to be compassionate, the work must begin with the adults who guide them.