We entered the building and walked across the lobby to the elevator. Two little boys sat with their mom over to the side. When the oldest of the two spotted Chloe, he called out excitedly, “I love your wheelchair!”
As we stopped to say thanks, he dashed over. He dropped to the floor beside the wheelchair and announced, “This is my favorite part!” as he touched the small light-up caster wheels of Chloe’s chair.
“Oh, yes! That’s my favorite part, too!” I said.
It’s sad that this five-second interaction had such an impact on me as Chloe’s mom. And there are a couple of reasons why it’s important.
First, the young boy was comfortable with Chloe’s wheelchair. This child obviously lives a life in which he is exposed to people with disabilities. And to people who use wheelchairs. I know this because I see the opposite in children all of the time.
The children who are not used to being around people with disabilities or people with wheelchairs, are the ones who stare in amazement the whole time Chloe is in their line of vision. The children who don’t see many wheelchair users would never approach a child in a chair. Much less touch the chair. But this young boy was at ease with it.
Second, the child’s mom was unfazed with Chloe’s wheelchair. She didn’t screech for her young son to be quiet or not to touch. She didn’t cower in fear or whisper or act uncomfortably. This young mama and her children were 100% comfortable with Chloe’s wheelchair. I venture to say that this family is friends with someone who uses a wheelchair. They were just that comfortable.
The only way to be friends with someone who uses a wheelchair is to be around wheelchair users. The only way to be friends with someone who has a disability is to be around people who have disabilities.
As long as schools and communities keep people and children apart according to disability labels, children and adults will stare at Chloe when they see her. But when children and adults are around people with disabilities in natural environments (classrooms, playgrounds, churches and clubs), then those people will be comfortable being friends. And being friendly to Chloe.
When children and adults do life together – learning, playing and contributing together – those children and adults will be comfortable approaching Chloe. They will see her as an equal.
If you notice your child staring at someone because of their disability or because of a device that supports them, please don’t tell them not to stare. Instead, approach the person with a disability, introduce yourself and say hello. Set a good example for your child.
And then seriously evaluate your life and your child’s life. Make some intentional changes that will cause your family to be in contact with people with disabilities. We have lived segregated lives for too long. We have tolerated segregated classrooms long enough. Help be the change.
A few minutes after arriving upstairs to our appointment that day, that same young family walked into the doctor’s office. Reiterating just how similar our families are, the mama said to her two young boys, “Yay! We have the very same doctor as she does!” Be like that mom. Be around us. Connecting with other parents to organize and share ideas can create a powerful voice.