Today I was thinking about advocacy and the importance of including students with disabilities with their same age peers. It got me reminiscing about when I was in elementary school and my first exposure to other kids with significant disabilities. I recall being in 4th or 5th grade and assisting a girl with cerebral palsy in PE. She wore arm braces to help her walk. She had an awkward gait and was super slow. However, her speech and intelligibility was just fine and she had the confidence of a super model.
I remember at church youth camp one year a boy with some type of mild intellectual disability (in retrospect I'm sure he was autistic) was in our dorm and spent the week with us at every activity and function. He even had a crush on my older sister and if I recall correctly she went to the banquet at the end of the week with him. I think at the time we had just as much fun with him as he did with us and I’d like to think we never did anything to hurt his feelings or make fun. However, he did crap his pants once. No teenage boy, no matter their disability, can escape the ridicule that “mud butt” in public will. I’m sorry Glen… but hey, we did quickly rush you back to the dorm and help you clean yourself up. Thanks for the experience buddy! I hope life has treated you well over the past 15 or so years since that summer.
My first career was working for UPS. Before becoming a driver, I had to work my way up by starting at the bottom unloading semi-trailers full of boxes at 3:00 am for something like $8 an hour. So I worked a second job in the afternoons for the YMCA after school program making minimum wage I believe. It was at the YMCA that I got my first real experience of kids with Down syndrome and autism. I was hooked, and even though it was for only a short time, those afternoons had a profound impact on my life.
In retrospect I can see the positive affect that all of these life experiences had on me. Growing up I may not have put myself out so much to assist or advocate, but I was never the one to go overboard with making fun of or picking on someone with a disability. I wish I could say that I didn’t occasionally tell a horrible joke or act “retarded”, but I did, just never to their face. Obviously as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that only douchebags make fun of and pick on those that are weaker than them or can’t speak for themselves.
The point of this post is to encourage parents of children with disabilities not to be afraid of letting their child experience life outside of the special ed bubble. Get them involved in activities with same age peers. You never know the positive impact your child may have on someone else. I wish I could say that they don’t get made fun of, but they do. Just don’t let that keep you from including them. As a parent of a child with Down syndrome who is mainstreamed I have had to deal with my son being picked on and made fun of already several times. It’s heartbreaking and I can’t express the anger that wells up inside, but I know his mainstream experience is the best thing for him AND his peers. I've even had the opportunity to share with my son's classmates who my son Judah is and why is the way he is. I used this awesome coloring book that can be downloaded here:
The second point of this post is to encourage young people, students, and teachers who find themselves next to or teaching a child with significant disabilities. Give them a chance, be patient, and remember that they are a person first. Though they may not learn as you do, or even as quickly, they can learn something; and believe it or not you may learn from them as well.
The third point of this post is to encourage those of you who make fun of others with disabilities. Be careful who you wag your tongue or open your mouth to. If you’re old enough to receive some old fashioned street justice you may just get dropped by someone bigger and stronger than you. Imagine the person you’re making fun of as your sibling, or even your child. If you’re too proud and mean to set yourself aside then I’ll say this, the world is better off without people like you and justice has a way of catching up eventually. If you’re a comedian who earns a living making fun of those who can’t help their condition consider writing some original jokes about those who can. There are enough jack asses in this world to make fun of who can help their condition… such as yourself.