Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More
Robbie was a 15 year-old high school youngster. He was in a special education class for the severely disabled. Robbie had Cerebral Palsy. Despite his crippling disability, he had an indomitable spirit and enthusiasm that was unmatched by anyone in the school; be they student or teacher. Hobbling on his crutches at a speed that horrified everyone who feared that he would fall, Robbie went to the school lunch room and ate with teachers or students as he wished. He was warm and endearing with his broad smile, great sense of humor and extroverted personality. If Robbie felt self conscious about his low IQ, drooling, spastic muscles and slurred speech, he never showed it. If he envied the “normal” kids, he never showed it. If he felt self pity about his fate in life, he never showed it.
Robbie won the hearts of the kids to such a degree, that they were happy to have him at their lunch tables. In the corridors, they greeted him and made room so that he could get by. If there were any bullies who wanted to hurt this boy, they kept away because everyone knew that whoever might try to bully him would have every kid in the school, including the football team, come down on their heads.
Robbie was an extraordinary person. I will never forget him.
Unfortunately, there are too many cases of youngsters with disabilities having very different experiences from Robbie’s. In nations around the world, youngsters like this are the recipients of unfair and cruel treatment at the hands of other youngsters, some of whom are predators and bullies who victimize these vulnerable children.
Many well meaning adults assume that children with disabilities cannot, and do not, want to take part in certain sports activities. Some hold the totally mistaken belief that inclusion makes no difference to special needs kids because they are too intellectually limited to understand that anything is wrong. There is also the assumption that the nature of some of these disabilities make participation impossible. Among those who discount these kids ability, or wish to participate, are teachers who one would expect should know better. The underlying implication in all of this is that those with disabilities cannot, and should not be challenged, either in the classroom or elsewhere.
An article published by the University of Edinborough, based on extensive research that included the participation of more than three hundred children with disabilities found that many of these youngsters defined being disabled as not being able to “do what you wanted to do. “Most children were determined to show that their disability did not define them as people.” One child told those doing the interviews to “go beyond their disability and just look at the person inside.” This is a powerful statement because there is a tendency to see the disability and not the real child. At the same time, these kids very much want to compete and be included in activities with other youngsters.
Among the many barriers these kids face is the fact that it is difficult for them to use many facilities at school because there is no easy access. Perhaps this is less so at the newer school buildings and play grounds but, in too many cases, the problem still feels insurmountable to the disabled.
Worse than these barriers is the fact that their peers do not want to play with them. Either they do not want them on their team or they feel embarrassed to have them around or be seen with them.
There is a danger in articles like the one cited above, that readers will come away thinking that kids with disabilities are helpless. As exemplified by Robbie, they are able to advocate for themselves by letting teachers and adults know what they want. Depending on the nature of the disability, they may not sound as eloquent as other kids and some may be hobbled by low IQ but they know how to demand what they want and need. Even in the area of bullying, many of them fight back and even bully other children with disabilities.
Some, but not all, of the children who are disabled have serious learning problems. Among these are youngsters with Autism, Down Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy. Intellectual disabilities range from mild to major and this impacts on their ability to function independently. Many years ago a teacher who did not work with the disabled, said “at least these intellectually limited kids don’t know that they are different.” It wasn’t said in a hostile or belittling way. Rather, it reflected the lack of knowledge on the part of this individual along with many others. The fact is that whatever the type of intellectual disability a kid is suffering from, they are well aware that they are different from other children. I remember knowing an adult with what was once called “mental retardation.” He lived in a group home with others with similar problems because of their inability to live independently on their own. His name was Danny and he described how he and others in the home looked down on others as “the retards,” and didn’t want to be included with them. Danny was among those residents who was allowed to go out and could function in the outside world. However, when the residents were taken on a group outing, he was self conscious about being seen with some of the others who were more severely challenged than he was. He was keenly aware of his disability, felt stigmatized by it and resented having to live in the group home. Despite his intellectual disability, Danny loved to read novels and certainly knew how to advocate for himself.
If the reader has any doubts about this, just take a look at the adults with Down Syndrome working in many of today’s supermarkets. Take the time to say hello to them and you might be delighted to see their response.
The public needs to be better educated about children and adults with disabilities. Do you have a child with special needs? You are invited to comment write about the problems you and your child have experienced in school and in the neighborhood. If your kids want to send in comments, by all means encourage them to do so. The more informed people are, the more aware they are, the better those with disabilities will be treated and allowed to take part in life.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD