By Dr. Ronald I. Malcolm, Ed.D.
Many parents may have seen other individuals, including children within their community, with various disabilities. Yet, many parents raising their children with disabilities might not have any prior experience with the disability that their child possesses.
Here are ten reasons why you and your child with a disability should meet and interact with adult role models with disabilities:
Feeling different Children with disabilities often feel “different.” Years ago, children with disabilities were often not visible in the mainstream. Some stayed home, others went to specialized schools or hospitals, and many felt isolated and lonely. Nowadays, many children with disabilities have entered the mainstream of the public school system, the neighborhood, as well as the local community. However, many children with disabilities often wonder why they never see someone “like them” in the neighborhood or school. Introducing your child to an adult that possesses the same disability can be a powerful learning experience for both you and your child. It allows your child with a disability not to feel so “different” anymore. For example, several decades ago, it was almost impossible to find an adult with a disability that was a public school teacher. Children with disabilities spend a significant amount of time going to school daily. Ironically, they never seem to encounter someone that looks like them. Adult teachers with disabilities tend to be very popular with children who have disabilities attending their school. Children with disabilities are almost naturally drawn to others that share their disability, whether it be their blindness, speech impediment, short stature, missing limb, dyslexia, etc. Simply put, it is IMPORTANT that your child with a disability be exposed to adults from the Disability Community.
A shared life experience Don’t be surprised at how many questions you and your child with a disability may have for an adult with a disability. Some parents worry that their child will appear “rude” or “insulting” to the adult. Almost all adults with disabilities tend to be very open to children with disabilities when they ask questions. After all, the great thing about children is that they tend to be extremely honest. While their questions may appear “blunt” to some, most children simply ask their questions, gather their information, and then go about their day. This is very unlike non-disabled adults. Non-disabled adults don’t want to appear offensive. They are worried about asking questions, so they tend to “stare.” Their questions end up going unanswered, and they never gain the necessary information needed to break the stereotype information they possess. Children are different, and most adults with disabilities welcome their questions.
How and when to self-advocateAdults with disabilities can often present with a different perspective on “self-advocacy.” Many non-disabled individuals believe that “self-advocacy” and “self-disclosure” about one’s disability should be done immediately. They seem to especially think this to be in the case of situations involving employment. Yet, adults with disabilities have often felt the sting of discrimination by disclosing too much information quickly about their disability to an employer. Gaining a disabled adult’s perspective can be valuable to you and your child with a disability.
Answering annoying disability-related questions Many adults from the Disability Community want to be positive advocates in educating the non-disabled community. However, some of the questions can become annoying and repetitive. It will be beneficial for your child to be able to discuss this with someone who also has a disability. Unfortunately, many young people with disabilities often only discuss this with their non-disabled parents. The parents may have no experience with answering disability-related questions and tell their child to just “ignore” the questions. Adults with disabilities may offer better insight into how to address annoying questions. Some adults with disabilities will attempt to educate the non-disabled individual; others like to use humor or sarcasm to make their point, etc. An adult with a disability can model an approach for your child with a disability to use when feeling overwhelmed with having to answer the same annoying questions frequently.
Recognizing discrimination While every parent wants to protect their child with a disability from any form of discrimination, it is likely to occur. Preparing your child to deal effectively with discrimination can be difficult and heart-wrenching. However, many adults with disabilities have become “experts” on how to deal with it. They can share their experiences with your child with a disability, how they felt when it happened to them, how they dealt with it effectively, and finally, how to report it when necessary.
A quality life focus Having a disability does not have to affect your life negatively. It also should not mean that you have a lower standard of living. Your child with a disability can benefit from interacting with positive role models with disabilities from the Disability Community. They can first benefit by visually witnessing others who look like them or have disabilities like theirs. They should realize that adults with disabilities can attend university, get married, start a family, have a good job, and so on. They can learn early on that having a disability should not make you “less.”
Knowing the community Adults with disabilities can be an essential resource to you and your child with a disability by assisting them with navigating their local community. They tend to be well-versed in the available resources for people with disabilities. They can: guide you to which stores are the most accessible, which businesses are the most accommodating to customers with disabilities, which babysitters are trained to work with children with disabilities, which dentists have worked with children with autism, which clinics always provide sign language interpreters, which restaurants have braille menus, which theaters offer assistive listening devices, which churches are welcoming to families with children with disabilities, which local doctors are the best with dealing with children that are non-verbal, etc. They can save you time and energy by simply sharing their knowledge.
Friends for a lifetime Children with disabilities and adults with disabilities are often “drawn” to each other. Often the bond between these two individuals can develop quickly and powerfully. So many children with disabilities often remain lifetime friends with adults with disabilities that they have met in their community. The exchange of ideas and experiences can be invaluable and life-altering.
Support groups Almost every community has some “Support Group” for individuals with disabilities. For example, your child might be deaf or blind and could benefit from attending a local meeting in the Deaf or Blind Community. Perhaps there is a support group in town for amputees or those with complex medical needs. Let your child go to a couple of these meetings and interact with others who also are amputees or possess complex medical needs. It will strengthen their own level of self-esteem and self-worth.
Increased awareness for siblings You and your child with a disability are not the only ones in your family that can be enriched by interacting with adults with disabilities. Many have never met anyone other than their own sibling with a disability and would benefit from interacting with adults with disabilities. Meeting other adults will allow them an avenue to ask their questions and observe how these adults with disabilities navigate life successfully. In addition, it can enable them to see their brother or sister with a disability in a new light.
Having a disability can be a bit frustrating for young people and sometimes confusing. However, exposing your child with a disability to adults in the community with disabilities can be life-changing. It can provide insight into becoming a contributing member of the community at large. They can also determine that a disability does not “define” them as people. They are MORE than their disability. They just need to be given the opportunity to shine!
Dr. Ronald I. Malcolm, Ed.D. is an Assistant Principal / School Counselor for a public school district and an Associate Faculty Member with the University of Phoenix, and a Special Graduate Faculty Member at the University of Kansas. He has Bachelor level degrees in English and Special Education. He holds Master Level degrees in Counseling, Special Education, and School Administration. His Doctorate Degree is in Educational Leadership. His Post Graduate degrees are in Positive Behavior Supports and Autism Spectrum Disorders. He has worked for the past 39 years with students between the ages of 3-21 with autism and various medical needs in school and community-based settings.