I find that children are fascinated by my “otherness.” They are enthralled with the adaptive devices I use. They want to know how I manage. Whenever possible, I share my world with them. I let the children I know ride in my wheelchairs – they LOVE my powerchair. I let them operate the buttons on my van that deploy my ramp, I show them how the hand-controls work. I let them work Pearl through “bring it” by dropping things on the floor showing them how to have her retrieve. I show them how she pushes my wheelchair.
Kids see right through my “otherness.” They quickly understand that I’m just a person. A grown-up like all the rest but I come with all these cool toys.
I was zipping through the lobby of a medical building. A mom and her son of about 4 or 5 years old were playing quiet games to pass time. The kid spots me and shouts out:
“HEY! WHY DO YOU HAVE THAT WHEELCHAIR?”
The lobby goes silent. Poor Mom cringes and chastises said son. I’m running late but I smile and roll over. Kiddo looks and me and mumbles “Sorry…”
I tell him it’s ok and I mean it. I tell him that I hurt my back and now my legs don’t work but it doesn’t hurt. (OK, a little lie but I’m not explaining neuropathy to a child.) I remind him to always wear his seat belt and look both ways when he crosses the street. It doesn’t correlate to my injury but kids want something to hold onto and this, I’ve found, works.
We talk for a couple minutes about how cool my chair is, how I drive, who helps me when I need it. We part, kid satisfied, me amused.
Kids are curious. As a mom with my own share of cringe-worthy anecdotes tucked away, I know children have no filters; they say whatever pops into their little heads. And, while capable of great sincerity and clarity, they can be rather… inartful in their questions.
If I may, you’re not doing your children or people with disability any favors when you stifle your children’s curiosity. When you tell them not to stare or not to ask questions, you turn me into something foreign and off limits. We’re taught as kids not to stare and by the time we become adults, that becomes “don’t look” rendering people with disabilities invisible and left out of the main stream.
I know you’re trying to be polite. I know you’re trying to protect your child. By setting me off-limits you unknowingly contribute to turning me into a pariah. If you’ll allow us that moment to connect, we share our human-ness and moving forward, that child might just see the person before the disability.
I find that kids are at first captivated by my differences then enthralled at my same-ness. Your child is my hope. If your child accepts and embraces my humanity, perhaps one day PWD will have true parity.
Another day, another trip. At the grocery store another little boy loudly points out “MOMMY, THAT LADY IS IN A WHEELCHAIR. WHAT’S WRONG WITH HER?”
Mom says “Nothing’s wrong with her, but yes, she is in a wheelchair. I have no idea why.”
I like this mom and give her a little smile, she continues “If you ask politely, maybe she’ll tell you but you need to ask nicely.”
She’s looking out the corner of her eye to gauge my willingness to interact. I give a little nod. She helps her little one with a more open question. “Excuse me Ma’am, are your legs hurt?” The kid and I have a great conversation including his promise to grow up and be a scientist and make a “leg thinger” to help me.
Who knows? Maybe he will.