| Discrimination?My husband and I raised two kids with special needs and how grateful I am for the laws and provisions that enabled them to have access to public buildings, participate in public school (we did that for a few years, but mostly home schooled), even the restrooms have usually been adequate to contain all the apparatus my physically disabled kids needed. So I take my hat off to those who went before and fought for the laws that made these provisions commonplace in our country.
Yet, I am troubled by a trend in the world of special needs that makes me wonder if sometimes we parents do more harm than good in seeking to be an advocate for our children.
Let me give you a recent example. This month, at a Penney’s store, kids were offered free haircuts. When a nanny brought in an autistic boy to get in on the deal, the stylist suddenly refused to cut his hair, saying that she doesn’t cut special needs kids’ hair. Sounds terrible right? And it was presented to the public as a horrific offense. Yet, look closer at the situation. The child insisted on putting his hands over his ears, which I imagine, also caused some moving around. Now my question is this: Who in their right mind would want to take a pair of very sharp scissors and try to cut hair when the chances are the scissors would end up cutting the skin on hands, face, ears or eyes?
Amends was made by offering to give the child a haircut at home or having him come in early before the store was open. Victory for special needs kids, right? Parents successfully advocating for their child, right?
I have to say,in my opinion, no.
You see, I learned one thing so clearly in the years that I raised my precious kids and sought to be their advocate: Discrimination, or lack of it, is a matter mostly of the human heart, not of compelling people with laws or intimidating them with harsh-sounding accusations .
For example, my son Brad enjoyed the laws of the land and was able to go to a charter school and to be given the chance to succeed there. Yet, often he walked down the hallways in his walker alone. He usually ate alone in the cafeteria. He didn’t get phone calls, emails, and invitations as other kids did. These are matters of the heart that can’t be legislated. So as parents, we do well, not to coerce people, but rather to help them to see the person that exists in our child with special needs so that they will embrace him or her from their heart. The truth is, we cannot force lack of discrimination, for discrimination is a matter of internal attitudes, not external constraints. It took time, but eventually Brad made progress socially, and his peers made some progress in taking time to talk with him and include him.
Let me ask you a question: Will the hearts of individuals want to embrace these children more or less when intimidation and force is used? As I acknowledged in the beginning paragraph, there are instances in which we are called to fight for the rights of those with disabilities, but there are times when we make matters worse by doing so.
Take the child who was refused the haircut. What will the employees feel toward this child next time he (or any other child who has special issues) comes into the store? Will they be drawn to him, or will they see him as a threat and a problem? I believe they will see him as a threat and a problem, not primarily because of his behavior, but because of the publicity they received in the incident. Is that really what we want to accomplish?
I know well the complications of these matters, and I know how a parent’s heart bristles when her child is rejected, for I have felt that feeling so often in my own heart.
But here would be my suggestion to the parent who experiences such a scene as what happened at Penneys: Take the child home without incident. Learn to cut his hair until such a time as he is able to safely get a haircut from someone else. Realize that although it is ten times, maybe a hundred times harder than with most kids to achieve, you can work with your child to help him gain self control.
Teaching kids self control is the key to creating a situation where they are not rejected. Did the stylist dislike the boy because he had autism? Or was she afraid of his lack of self control and afraid of injuring him? I strongly believe the answer is the latter.
Our hearts ache as parents, and we’ll do anything to make our kids be accepted. But I encourage you to realize that our efforts are best spent in helping others to see the wonderful person that lives inside the body and mind that is different because of disability or other issues.
I have learned much from Temple Grandin whose autism was severe enough as a child that it was recommended that she be institutionalized . She explains in her book Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships how she was raised and how it helped her to fit in. Here are a few of the things she shares in chapter one of the book:
“Mother never viewed my autism as excusing me from the expectation that I would learn to function within the social structure.” p.3
“Mother was strict in her discipline, and applied it consistently.” p.3
“Socializing was an everyday occurrence and having appropriate social skills was expected. If I acted inappropriately at a neighbor’s house, the mom would simply correct my behavior–no big deal– like my mother did.” p.5
So Temple was held to account, and yet she makes it clear that her sensory issues were also handled with great sensitivity and care. She wasn’t asked to be in situations that would create “sensory overload.” There was a balance between accountability and sensitivity to her very real condition.
What is my point in sharing this? Whether a child has autism, physical disability, learning issues, or whatever the case may be, we serve him best by helping him to fit in with the rules and expectations of society, rather than threatening those who are intimidated by behavior that doesn’t fit in with the norm.
The autistic boy who put his hands over his ears was not misbehaving, and should not be disciplined, but he should be patiently and gently but firmly taught the reason why he cannot do that during a haircut. He should see himself not as a victim but as one who is capable of understanding the situation that others are in, thus learning to fit in a social situation. For him to see himself as a victim sends him into life with a worse handicap than his existing condition. For him to come to the place where he restrains his impulses for the sake of another person sends him into life equipped to make friends and to succeed in areas of his endeavors. Even when the issue is not misbehavior, the child is best served to learn to control whatever makes others uncomfortable, especially when the others involved are expected to perform their job.
The Bible commands children to “obey your parents” (Ephesians 6:1-3). There are no exceptions to this command. Why does God instruct kids in this way? “That it may be well with you…” God does not exclude kids with special needs from His instruction to obey their parents, simply because He does not want to exclude them from the blessing “that it may be well with you.”
Parents, channel your energy more toward helping your kids to obey you and be blessed in so doing, than in intimidating those who seem to reject your child. Your child will greatly benefit more from your efforts if you do.
We parents who have special kids know instinctively how valuable and gifted they are. Our job is not primarily to shove that reality down people’s throats, but rather, to help our children develop the ability to demonstrate to others the incredible persons that they really are through self control and having a sense of the value of others. It is then that these kids will be embraced, accepted, and even enjoyed and included.
Discrimination will always be there to some degree. We can’t change that through intimidation, but we can help our child to be a living picture of how desirable it can be to know and have a relationship with someone who has special needs.
note: If this article seems too simplistic (“that’s easy for her to say”) please know that although I share principles that I believe are universal and apply to all kids, no matter what their issues may be, I do understand that although the goal is the same for all kids, the journey getting there can be very different, and some have much higher hurdles to climb in reaching these goals than others.