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How My Family Is Passing Along the Ideals of Disability Acceptance and Inclusion

You’re diseased!” This was the proud proclamation made by my smiling kindergarten-age nephew several years ago. I laughed at how proud he was of himself as his mom, flustered hastened to explain to him that he had used the wrong word. To this day, replaying that scene in my mind amuses me — and not just because I was an aunt hanging out with a cute little boy with dark blonde curls. As I talked later with my sister-in-law about his outburst, I felt a degree of pride in my family and satisfaction that my disability was useful — as I had always maintained.

My nephew started school in an urban school district that year eager, inquisitive and outgoing. Inside, he learned and participated and was a whiz at math. Outside, he spent his energy running and jumping on the playground and making friends. The adults thought he was sweet. His classmates thought he was cool. My nephew had it made.

He gravitated towards older kids; he always looked for them on the schoolyard or in the neighborhood park. One day on the yard, he saw an older child with an obvious disability. I can’t remember the nature of the disability, but the part that stays with me today is his reaction and his parents’ response to the opportunity presented.

All accounts describe him as taken aback when he saw the older child. He watched him from a distance, trying to process and understand what he saw. He noticed the differences in him compared to the other students he would usually gravitate towards. To his credit and his sweet nature, he did not disrespect him. He was, however, naturally curious. So he turned to the one person his 5-year-old mind felt had all the answers — his dad, my brother.

Despite having grown up with me and my comings and goings to the hospital or doctor’s office, my brother was surprisingly uninformed of the medical nature of my disability, or disability in general. As it turned out, that wasn’t the most salient point for my nephew. What appeased him was when my brother suggested the mystery boy might like soccer and video games like he did. He reminded his son that “Auntie Maria” looked different, spoke a little differently and had a hearing aid because she is disabled just as the boy was.  He pointed out that even though all these things about me were different, obvious and true, “Aunt Maria’s still pretty fun and cool, right?” So, he ventured, “The boy at school could be fun too; you just need to go up and talk to him like you would any of the other cool kids you play with.”

My nephew has always been one of few words but careful thought. He went back to school and watched that child some more. If he noticed that child, so did other classmates. He may have even witnessed other kids being mean to him. I do know he continued to go to my brother with his questions and allowed that to form his thinking and guide his actions. I don’t know what happened to that boy or if my nephew formed some level of friendship with him. However, after the moment where he mistakenly proclaimed I was “diseased,” with equal earnestness he declared, “I like you. You’re pretty.

My nephew is now in his 20’s and a college graduate. Thanks to his dad and mom, he has turned into a thoughtful and compassionate young man. I like to think his openness at that young age, and my brother’s freely shared perspective, has passed the ideals of acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities to the next generation. May my nephew’s perspective open doors and allow others with disabilities to know they are welcomed and valued.

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