This week, the schools in my community will celebrate DisAbility Awareness. It is a wonderful idea, both for children with special needs and typically developing children alike.
It wasn't until I was an adult that "Disability Awareness" was something that was discussed.
The school I attended for most of my elementary school years was a big and beautiful building built at the turn of the century. It had high ceilings, tall windows and hardwood floors that were waxed to a glossy finish each year for the start of school in September. I still remember the way the school smelled when I walked through the front doors each September. At the rear of the school there were doors with concrete signs above them labeled, "Boys" and "Girls". In the early years children would line up by gender and would enter through the basement of the school and traveled through the bathrooms, which were located next to the boiler room. It was rather dark down there and I found it scary to go in there.
Though I have no set foot in the school in more than thirty years, I still remember every inch of it clearly. I can still mentally walk through the front door and ascend a flight of stairs and turn left into the office. I can remember the location of each of my classrooms. And the music room. The library. The 'multipurpose room'. I have traveled almost every inch of that school except for one: to this day, I have no idea where the "Special Ed." kids were kept. I've never been in that classroom and have no recollection of passing it in my daily school travels.
As a parent of a child with special needs I wonder how these children were able to navigate through the building. There were no elevators. No handicapped accessible bathrooms. No ramps. I wonder how the children made their way around.
When I was a child, there were no children with special needs in my classroom at school. Or on my bus. Or in my Sunday School class. Or in my day camp. Or playing outside or riding bikes after school. The children with special needs were tucked away in their own small classroom, far, far away from mine. I did not sit with them at lunch, play tag with them at recess or trade snacks with them at lunch. I had no interaction with them at all.
As a child, I was afraid of these children. Some looked different. Some made odd noises. Others yelled. Some rocked back and forth and others walked in a way that was very strange to me. I remember one boy who never said a word and whose face always wore a vacant expression. He always wore a knit winter hat, even in the warmer months. My childhood logic told me that there must be something seriously wrong with these boys and girls. Perhaps I could catch what they had....that must be the reason they were kept far away from us. It must be why I never saw them in the library, or in the lunch room, or at recess. I know they were called the "retards" and their classroom was called , by some, the "Ree-Ree Room."
No one ever talked about these children so I never asked questions. I figured we weren't supposed to. I just made sure to keep my distance.
Times, thankfully, have changed and I am so grateful that M is growing up in a different world.
M's school day is spent mixed between the general education classroom and the special education classroom. His special ed. room is not hidden away from the rest of the school. M actively participates in both rooms. He has friends in both rooms. M attends music, art, gym and assemblies with his general ed. peers. He goes on the same field trips. He eats lunch with them in the cafeteria and plays on the same playground with them at recess.
When I pick M up at school, there is always another teacher, child or parent who greets M by name. Frequently when we are out grocery shopping or eating in a restaurant, someone will come up to greet M.
M is well known in his community. At times, M's popularity even makes Miss J slightly jealous. "Why does everyone make such a big deal about M? They treat him like he's a rock star!"
M's experience growing up is vastly different from that of the kids with special needs when I was a child. I am grateful for all the work that is done to educate other about kids like M through things like DisAbility Awareness Week.
In honor of that, I am sharing an essay that is a favorite of mine and touches my heart deeply.
May everyone have a hand to hold when needed.
May everyone be support to another person in need.
Crossing the Finish Line Together
Based on a true story which happened at the 1976 Special Olympics in Seattle, Washington.
Years ago at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine contestants lined up at the starting line for the 100 yard dash. At the sound of the starting gun, they all started off in their own way, making their best effort to run down the track toward the finish line. That is, except for the one young boy who stumbled soon after his start, tumbled to the ground and began to cry. Two of the other racers, hearing the cries of the boy who fell, slowed down and looked back at him. Then without hesitation, they turned around and began running in the other direction—toward the injured boy.
While the other contestants struggled to make it to the finish line, the two who had turned around to run in the other direction reached for the boy and helped him to his feet. All three of them then linked arms and together they walked to the finish line. By the time the trio reached the end, everyone in the stands was standing and cheering, some with tears rushing down their faces. Even though by turning back and helping the boy who fell, they lost their own chance to win the race, they all had smiles on their faces because they knew they had done the right thing.