Connecting with People who are “Different”

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.

  1. Get enlightened – Know about the various types of disabilities (physical, developmental or intellectual), so that we can better address our children’s curiosity.
  2. Encourage your children to play with and get involved in activities that include children with special needs.
  3. Discourage your children from laughing at, bullying, saying hurtful things, staring, walking away or stigmatizing people with disabilities.
  4. 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.

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2 thoughts on “Connecting with People who are “Different”

  1. Deep stuff, all this. Can’t even find the words to articulate my thoughts properly. I don’t have first hand experience with children with special needs, but I do know that we need to be a lot more thoughtful, a lot more sensitive when we we are relating with them. Thanks

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  2. Thank you very much for that piece. It is especially poignant for me as I am walking in those shoes. You see, my first child , a 26 year old man is said to be on the autistic spectrum . Growing up in Nigeria and attending school here was a mixed bag. He got made fun of but didn’t get bullied as such.He had very good friends who saw beyond his hesitant speech and need for solitude and made friends with him. They allowed him to copy their notes etc but would not invite him to a party because he probably would have been boring. Some of their parents encouraged visits . However he left for England 14 years ago and left mainstream education . Let’s just say that he then became invisible . His former friends while they don’t mean any harm, have moved on. My son is home on a visit from England and he has no friends to visit or to be visited by. Not anyone’s fault . though .
    What can Mums Do? All of Dayo’s suggestions are spot on but in addition please please don’t try to airbrush these children away. When you visit your friends with such children by all means talk to the children about themselves.Engage them in conversation , treat them as real persons not as fragile things that we must avoid so they don’t break. Yes they may not be able or willing to answer but I promise you that they appreciate your effort. My friend ‘s profoundly autistic son always had a hug for me when he felt like because I was not afraid to talk to him even though he had no speech. They are said to be emotionless😳Also, When you talk to the parents about their children, don’t leave the special needs one out. Ask questions make suggestions but please please be constructive and don’t blame the parents for not doing enough deliverance . They already blame themselves . My son is hopefully going to be learning some dance moves on this visit as he cant dance to save his life😄😄

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