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When a Theme Park Employee Questioned My Child's Special Needs

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My daughter, Addison, is one of the millions of kids that has an invisible disability. At first glance, and even at 10th glance, you probably wouldn’t know that she has low vision and has trouble seeing the world around her. She doesn’t use a white cane and doesn’t have a guide dog. But she still has the disability. Whether others around her know it or not.

Sadly, because of the infinite number of stories on social media, I know that many people who also have invisible disabilities are often shamed for not being special needs “enough.”

There are admonishing letters written about using handicapped parking spaces, nasty words to parents about their kids’ “poor” behavior, and disrespectful comments thrown around in restaurants, offices and movie theaters.

But by some miracle, my daughter hasn’t ever been exposed to this discrimination because she isn’t special needs enough. Until last week.

We were at our family’s favorite theme park, and we always use their special access pass given to people who need extra help. Each time we visit, we explain our daughter’s genetic disorder to justify why she needs the extra assistance. The pass is always handed over with a smile. But not this time. This time we encountered Justin. And Justin just didn’t get it. At all.

I brought Addison up to the guest assistance counter with me because we actively teach her to self-advocate. To ask for help when she needs it. To show her that it’s not only OK to ask for help, but it’s OK to accept it, too.

But Justin decided that since Addison was accompanied by able-bodied people, she shouldn’t receive additional assistance.

Oh, Justin. You just messed with the wrong mama.

I smiled bravely in front of Addison and I re-explained that we get this assistance every time we come. I reasoned with him and asked for help again. He just repeated that he didn’t see how her needs would be helped by their services.

So I cussed at him. In my head. I told him what I thought of his smug, canned, non-compassionate little self. In my head. Addison was watching my every move.

I did the only thing I could do with my daughter still standing there with me. I re-explained, reasoned and asked for help again. With a forced smile.

As Justin started his monologue again about how he couldn’t help us, I sent Addison away so I could speak freely. Now I could tell Justin that he was discounting my daughter. Discounting her genetic condition and her low vision. Discounting her need for assistance. And honestly, he was just pissing me off. Because now Mama Bear had been poked too many times. Do not poke a Special Needs Mama Bear, Justin.

And as I stood there for an unreasonable amount of time trying to explain that not all disabilities are visible, something rare happened. A super angry Papa Bear showed up to talk to Justin.

You see, my husband rarely gets involved in things like this. He’s the calm one. He brings me back to my calm place. But not today. Today he came to do battle for his daughter. He came to deal with Justin. We requested to talk to Justin’s manager and then that manager’s manager, each time retelling our story. Our daughter’s story. And how some disabilities are invisible and there should not be a requirement to prove she’s special needs enough.

It all worked out in the end. An hour later. Of course Addison could have the assistance she always gets. Of course they were so sorry for the misunderstanding and the inconvenience.

We got what Addison needed to access the park, but as my husband and I walked away we both felt sick to our stomachs. My hands were shaking and I felt beaten down. It is such an intense response having to fight for your kid. Because not only did Justin discount my daughter, he discounted me. Ignored me. Like my words to explain why my daughter is more disabled than she looks was not good enough for him. And who are you, Justin, to decide whether my daughter is special needs enough?

Instead of Justin making my job as a parent easier, I had to explain to my 8-year-old that sometimes when you ask for help, you won’t get it. Sometimes people aren’t kind. Sometimes people are crummy.

But it also taught our daughter something else: Her parents will always be there for her. We will stand up for her and speak up for her until she’s able to do it herself. When Addison saw us speak up for her and for what she needs, she stood up a little taller. Because we stood up a little taller.

And while I hope she won’t encounter many more Justins in the world, sadly I know she will. That’s life. But she now knows that when she does, she’ll have back up. She’ll have us. Mama Bear, with Papa Bear at her side.

And that’s a good lesson for any kid.

Follow this journey on The Wise Owl.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment you were met with extreme negativity or adversity related to your disability and/or disease (or a loved one’s) and why you were proud of your response — or how you wish you could’ve responded. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: October 14, 2015
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