About two weeks ago, I came across an interview on YouTube held with the first deaf-blind Harvard Law graduate – Haben Girma. To say I was impressed would be putting it mildly. I was also very curious to know her story and how she accomplished such a feat – I can only imagine the effort and adjustment being deaf or blind would require but to be both and graduate from Harvard…with a Law degree…wow!!!!
After getting over my initial amazement, I listened intently to the interview and there was something Haben said that has kept ringing in my head. The interviewer asked her “how well received were you by other young students?” Her response “…when I was in high school it was a lot harder to connect with people…kids are afraid of difference…teenagers are trying to look cool and trying not to be different…it takes maturity to accept and celebrate difference…” As I listened, I remembered my own experience in my first year of Secondary school. I was put on the same dining table for the whole of my first year with 3 blind students and I honestly didn’t know how to handle it. I experienced a myriad of emotions – sympathy, pity, fear, sadness, compassion… I literally cried everyday for the first few weeks. But guess what? We eventually became good friends. I remember Snr. Deborah who I would read to so she could type her notes in braille and over the weekend she would help me plait my hair.
As parents, there are so many things that we need to help our kids learn, one of which is showing kindness by connecting with people with disabilities. With schools embracing inclusion classrooms (special education students learning alongside their general education peers), chances are that if your child hasn’t yet met a child with a disability, it’s just a matter of time. While children are naturally empathetic, sometimes we find ourselves in that awkward situation where our child stares, attempts to run away in fear or reacts in a somewhat embarrassing manner when they meet someone who “is different”. Since none of us got the “parenting manual” at such moments we find ourselves at a loss as to how to appropriately handle the situation. So I reached out to my friend Dayo who has a 17-year-old son with autism, and is also very involved in working with visually impaired and special needs students, and she graciously agreed to share some tips that would help us guide our children as they meet and relate with children with special needs.
- Get enlightened – Know about the various types of disabilities (physical, developmental or intellectual), so that we can better address our children’s curiosity.
- Encourage your children to play with and get involved in activities that include children with special needs.
- Discourage your children from laughing at, bullying, saying hurtful things, staring, walking away or stigmatizing people with disabilities.
- Be open to inclusion classrooms. The benefits to both the general education students and their special needs education peers are quite far reaching.
As we continue in our quest to entrench the culture of kindness in our children, let’s remember that the way we relate to people with special needs or respond to questions from our children will affect the way they think about disabilities and treat others as they grow up. Let’s deliberately choose kindness.