I've written before about how ripe the OT waiting room is for stories and teachable moments (The Waiting), but today I want to write about how that can be a teachable moment.
My wife and I spend a lot of time discussing/recalling the special needs kids in our lives when we were growing up. Julie has always been impressed by my comfort level with special needs kids (and adults), and she once admitted to me that, as a teenager, she went out of her way to help/volunteer/include, but was often intimidated or hesitant because "she didn't know what to do". She wanted to know how I had such an ease and/or grace with individuals with special needs.
I grew up the son of a pediatric physiatrist. Children with severe physical and mental disabilities surrounded my life. They were Dad's patients. They were my friends. They just were... there. My younger brother has a birth defect rendering him unable to walk without forearm crutches or a wheelchair. He was just... there. I fought with him the exact same way I fought with my older, able-bodied brother. In fact, we usually had to team up to fight said brother.
Only in recent years have we really discussed disability. You see, my younger brother today is one hell of a para-athlete. He is also one hell of a "roll" model, spending time volunteering and mentoring the para athletic youth of Sacramento.
This is a recent picture of Ro (my brother) at Ability First Sports camp for para-athletes. If you're scratching your head, you can probably figure out why "Find My Eyes" is very in to adoption rights as well.
I digress to talk about a man I admire very much. My personal "roll" model, and Jack's favorite Uncle (although that may be because Uncle Ro is also a "techie" and, according to Jack, can fix anything).
So the answer to the question my wife asked me long ago is:
I swear I'm going to get to the OT waiting room story, but I want to tell you where we, as adults, see inclusion in action in real life.
Before we moved to the other side of Glendale, we shopped at the Albertsons that used to be on Allen and Glenoaks. Jack was a baby and was the "valentine" of all the ladies that worked there, and, as local grocery stores tend to foster, we had a nice relationship with everyone there.
There was a developmentally disabled man that bagged groceries there. He didn't speak much, a few words or phrases, but he grunted a lot. A very nice man. A very nice man, however, that was about 6'3", 250lbs. or so, and often had "inappropriate" interactions (or, intimidating, at the very least) with the customers.
Albertsons had an amazing manager... his name was Greg. The reason I mention Greg is the ease and grace he dealt with "Johnny". If Johnny was attempting to offer to carry out groceries without speaking words, intimidating, perhaps even harassing, the young woman in line,. growingly frustrated to find the words he could not speak. Greg would seamlessly step in and sooth the situation... to Johnny! He would address his employee, not the customer, and mellifluously say "Johnny, do you want to ask her if she would like help to her car"?
I'll never forget Greg. He so naturally empowered his employee. He so naturally showed the respect Johnny deserved by addressing him, rather than the customer. He so naturally loved his employee, but with respect, not condescension.
That Albertsons closed down. I hope Johnny and Greg stayed together in their next job.
We've had the same time slot at OT for a year or so now... and so do most of the other kids. There is a boy there... "Billy". He might be a teenager (13 or so). He is non-verbal. He communicates through a few words and mostly verbal exclamations (grunts). A sweet boy. With very sweet parents.
He has recently taken a liking to Jade (who hangs out in the lobby with me). He comes over to Jade and sits next to her and makes "popping" sounds to entertain her. He laughs to her hoping for a laugh back. He is very interested in her My Little Pony video on her iPad.
But Jade is scared of him.
How can this be? Jade is surrounded by disability? Jade knows better?
I used to try to force Jade to interact. "Jade, say hello", "Jade, be nice", "Jade, share".
And I thought of my wife telling me she was scared when she was a kid... she didn't know what to do.
I can not force tolerance or acceptance on a 3 year-old. I can't...
BUT I CAN MODEL IT!!!
Billy and I have had more conversations than I care to remember over the weeks. Even if I am guessing, I always remember the lesson I learned from Greg at the grocery store... respect, not condescension. She will accept what I accept.
And finally, after about 2 months, yesterday in the OT waiting room... She turned her iPhone to Billy and said 3 simple words:
"That's Pinkie Pie"
A story my wife doesn't know I'm going to tell.
I took Jack to the driving range about a year ago. Jade (still in her stroller) and Julie hung out by the benches while I attempted to hit a bucket of balls with Jack.
Every night around sundown, a man wanders onto the driving range, gathering aluminum cans and discarded golf balls. He speaks aloud to himself. He smiles when he catches your attention, but it seems forced, almost as if he's been told to.
He is harmless. The course staff clearly allows him to be there. The golfers on the range mostly ignore him and he ignores them.
"Keep your head down when you hit the ball, Jack"
And I turn to see my wife speaking with this man.
"What are you doing"
"I'm gathering cans. I can sell them. I take them to a place that gives me money for them"
"That's a great idea. My name is Julie"
Respect, not condescension.