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Why I Talk to My Son's Classmates About His Disability

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Some parents decide not to talk to their children’s classmates about them having Down syndrome. They believe other kids see their child as just like them, and drawing attention to Down syndrome just singles them out as different. They want their child to be part of the class without their peers noticing their differences. They want them to fit in for as long as possible and just be like everyone else.

Before I go any further, I want to point out that I’m not saying anybody is wrong. We are all doing what we think is best for our children and we all have different ideas of what that is. It’s just that I’ve been thinking about the route I chose to take with my son’s school, and why I chose complete openness and to celebrate Down syndrome and differences.

From day one we’ve spoken about it in a matter-of-fact kind of way. The children at his school all know he has Down syndrome and from what I’ve seen, it’s not a big deal to any of them. He’s just River and he’s a valued and loved student. I think it’s wonderful that those children are growing up without any of it being a big deal. I welcome questions; I love educating both children and teachers about acceptance, inclusion and the realities of disability.

The result of our openness has been incredible, with everyone apparently embracing the things they are learning through my son. They’ve listened, they’ve learned and watching a whole school valuing and loving everybody is quite frankly beautiful. If I didn’t talk to people about River having Down syndrome, I’d feel somehow that I was just pretending he was just like any other kid in class, and the reality is he’s not. Telling someone your child is disabled is not telling them they are less than them, its not a negative thing unless we make it one. It doesn’t bother me one bit that River is different and I’m so passionate about children growing up alongside those who are different to themselves.

Hayley's son riding a tricycle.

How can we expect children to learn that different is beautiful if we act like everyone is the same? That’s not what inclusion is about. It’s about embracing differences, celebrating differences and welcoming differences. It seems like we’ve all convinced ourselves that children don’t see differences, but we are wrong. Believing that children don’t notice when other children are not like them is naive, because of course they do. And it’s also not wrong when they notice either, it’s natural.

The difference between children and adults is that children usually don’t see differences as a negative or something to be afraid of. It doesn’t make them feel awkward or self-conscious, and it doesn’t make them feel the need to look away. It’s not that they don’t see differences, it’s that they don’t care about them. Their innocence allows them to believe the world is a good place, where everyone loves each other, is kind to each other and is treated with kindness.

But children grow into adults. One day children will reach a stage where they do notice their classmates’ uniqueness. They will notice that their friend at swimming lessons doesn’t look like them. They will notice that their friend at dance class can’t move in the same way as them. They will notice that their best friend’s sister acts different to them. And do you know what will happen if nobody has ever spoken to them about disabilities? They will probably be afraid. They will think it’s something that shouldn’t be mentioned and they too will start to turn away in embarrassment. They will have the exact same attitudes we are working so hard to change.

Hayley's son playing outside.

So talk to your children. Talk, talk and talk some more. Encourage other parents to talk to their children and encourage teachers to talk to their students. Teach them about differences, about acceptance, about disability and about the beauty of their unique peers. Welcome the awkward questions without shrugging them off with embarrassment, and without urging them to be quiet. Answer honestly, because by not answering we are saying to our children that they’ve asked something wrong. That disability is not something that should be spoken about. We are teaching them to be exactly like what we are working so hard to change.

Let’s learn from past mistakes and educate our children about all the differences in the world. Disability, race, culture, religion, sexuality. Everything. Let’s lead by example. Let’s teach our children that different is actually normal, because we are all different in some way. Every single one of us.

Originally published: September 17, 2019
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