A couple months ago, I took my daughters to get one of them, PSP, registered at her new school. As I sat in line my mind started wandering… and I thought about PSP’s new teacher. I wondered if we’d get to request a teacher or have one assigned to us. For some reason the thought came into my head, What if her new teacher were in a wheelchair? And my instant, gut reaction was: Oh no… I don’t want her teacher to be in a wheelchair.
To be clear, this was not because I was worried if this hypothetical teacher would be able to perform her job functions correctly. This was because the thought of a wheelchair made me uncomfortable.
Well, the answer is easy. I’m prejudiced. And I’m pretty sure you are, too.
Of course, given a few minutes of thinking through it, I knew I wouldn’t have had that immediate reaction for very long. In the long run, I know I would have been totally cool with and probably even really excited about the prospect of PSP having a teacher in a wheelchair. Regardless, my first instinct was No, I wouldn’t want that, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that reaction ever since.
However, that’s not even the worst of it. I met a woman a few months ago who also has a limb difference. Just one arm affected. As we stood there talking about limb differences — about her and my daughter — I realized I was a little uncomfortable… with her difference. While I no longer feel this way about her difference — in fact I think she’s a wonderful person and I look forward to each and every time I see her — that slight discomfort was there. Even if just for a few minutes. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about coming to terms with my prejudices, but I wrote about it in the past tense… like I used to have them. Now I’m facing the fact that I still have them.
Part 1: thoughts about where these prejudices came from.
As much as I hate to admit it, I have some prejudices and these prejudices are embedded deep inside, starting from a very young age. I remember once being at a swimming pool as a kid and seeing an older boy with Down syndrome splashing around wildly, angrily. No one would go near him and the lifeguards and his parents were trying to get him out of the pool. He was large and as a kid, I remember his presence and size seemed menacing. I don’t remember entire conversations but I remember snippets about him holding a kid under water and that his parents were brother and sister and that’s why he was “retarded.” When kids hear lies like that, it takes a while to unravel that lie from your brain. It was probably years before I understood that’s not what makes someone “retarded.”
Different is different. And sometimes, as much as we like to think we’re open-minded and unafraid we can really be shaken, disturbed, quieted, uncomfortable and simply ignorant of those who are different. I remember what it was like knowing I was going to give birth to a baby who would look different from anyone I had ever known.
I was worried that my immediate reaction would be one of hesitancy and not love. It wasn’t. I loved that little babe with my whole heart and loved on those limbs the way any mother does with her babies. But the worry was there because I was not familiar with different. I was scared of different.
Part 2: why am I telling you this?
A big part of my decision to host a special needs spotlight was because I wanted other people to see children with special needs the way we, their parents, see them. We love the same way we love our other kids, or the way you love your typical kids. We are grateful to be their parents. There is love, light, joy and laughter.
But what I realized is that just because I am a special needs mom, I certainly don’t have all the answers. The spotlights open my eyes as well; they are informative and educational for me. The spotlights have helped me know how to talk to other parents of children with special needs. Being “in the club” has not made me an expert.
And clearly, I still have prejudices.
Socially speaking, the very idea of having any form of prejudice makes you a bad person. You cannot and do not admit to having them. It’s more than just taboo. So if I can admit to you my prejudices — me, the mother of a daughter with special needs — then you can feel more at ease in admitting your prejudices. Which I hope will lead to self-reflection and perhaps a change in attitude and ultimately behavior.
To be clear, there are different kinds of prejudice. There is ignorant prejudice, and there is hateful prejudice. I think most of us fall under the ignorant category. But just because most prejudice doesn’t lead to hateful and deplorable acts of violence and intolerance, ignorant prejudice even in its most naive forms isn’t good. Even ignorant prejudice can lead to avoiding people and their families. Ignorant prejudice can lead to unkind thoughts and actions — ignoring, bullying, teasing. Ignorant prejudice can lead to exclusion, fear and name calling. Ignorant prejudice can lead to people not getting hired for jobs. And yes, eventually, ignorant prejudice can lead to violence.
Part 3: what can we do?
My first answer, is I don’t know. This blog post is only going to do so much. Like “drop, in a drop, in a drop of a bucket” so much. But it’s something. My hope is that anyone who reads it will seriously consider the prejudices they have. Please think about them. I don’t care how liberal and open-minded you consider yourself… somewhere deep inside, you have prejudices. Perhaps you are uncomfortable with people of a different race, a different social class, people who are overweight or, as discussed, people with disabilities.
Once acknowledged, the next step is to think about the extent to which those prejudices affect your thoughts and actions. Finally, think about how you can change them. For me, I can honestly say that self-reflection has helped a lot. Once I recognized my feelings for what they were, and then asked myself, “Why are you feeling this way? What is making you uncomfortable?” I was able to move past these apprehensions. I’m not saying I’ve cured myself of prejudice forever, but I really do feel like I understand why I had those thoughts and feelings in the first place, and I know I have the guts to face them should they come up again. And now that I’ve faced the ugly truths head on, I no longer feel like those things are issues anymore.
Another BIG thing, that is almost always pointed out in my special needs spotlight series, is to talk to your kids about people who are different. Especially if they see another child with special needs. Do not, I repeat DO NOT, shush your child and rush them away. That confirms their fears that something is wrong with being disabled, when that is certainly not the case. Open a dialogue and let your child ask their questions with you by their side to mediate.
I don’t have a tidy little closing for this whole thing, but I hope it’s been helpful. I hope it was meaningful to someone out there. Feel free to share your thoughts and feelings on the subject. Although I’ve never really had this problem, I just ask you to please be kind in your comments.
So that’s it. I’m prejudiced and so are you. Let’s talk.
This is a modified version of a post that originally appeared on This Little Miggy Stayed Home in October 2012.
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