I have always had a place close to my heart for people with disabilities. Not because I feel sorry for them or pity their hardships, but because I have met some pretty incredible individuals who have touched my life. They just happen to be a little different. My interactions with kids with disabilities began in Elementary school where I was part of a group of mainstream (the term for normal class) students that were allowed to go into the Special Day Class (SDC) room. We played with the kids that had disabilities ranging from Autism to Cerebral Palsy. This was the first time I saw these children in a different light. I think often times kids are scared of differences. These “differences” can range from a disability that alters someones appearance (like Down Syndrome) to differences in religion, culture, political affiliations.. Even as a fifth grader, I remember coming home upset because my friends were against playing with “those special kids”. I didn’t start looking into why elementary school age children don’t like playing with children with disabilities until my first college English final. It was a paper on marginalization and stereotypes.
When a child is born, they are totally reliant on their parents. As they grow up, start learning language and how to process thoughts, their parents are the main contributor to their growth. Parents teach their children right from wrong and how to act in public. But they also teach their children discrimination, intolerance and how to comprehend differences with social stereotypes. Let me back track by saying this is not always the parents fault. Every generation is different. It looks like we are shifting to a more inviting and less discriminatory society in America but 50, 60, 70 years ago this was not the case.
My grandfather’s brother was born mentally retarded in the early 1930’s. Back then, disabilities were frowned upon. People with disabilities were basically a disgrace to the family because they wouldn’t be productive, would never reproduce and were essentially just another mouth to feed. He was locked in the back room of my great grandparent’s house and was not allowed to participate in social gatherings or go to school with normal kids. My great grandmother was his caretaker since they didn’t have the knowledge the have today about disabilities. Eventually it became to much for her and he was sent to an asylum. The family only saw him a couple times a month. When my grandfather married my grandmother (who became a teacher), they were exposed to more kids with disabilities. In turn they taught their daughters (my mom and aunt) how to be kind to people with disabilities. My mom grew up to obviously be a mother but she had a job as an aide in a SDC preschool classroom. She came home with cute stories about the kids she worked with. She was just as proud of them learning their ABC’s as she was of me earning honor roll. It gave my sister and I the perspective that these kids aren’t as different from us as other kids make it seem. They go to school, they learn stuff, they have recess on the playground. My generation, unlike that of my grandparents, has learned that people with disabilities aren’t diseased or less human that the rest of us. They are individuals with differences that can be embraced and that have a positive impact on society.
In future Nanni-sodes (my ode to an episode) I will be posting how to teach children tolerance, how to care for children with disabilities and what it is like to have a disability.