Ableism is an ugly word and an uglier thing. It can happen in any part of society and community, even in what you consider your oasis, or somewhere you think is “safe”. Sometimes it’s accidental, sometimes it’s intentional, but it’s always discrimination and almost always from a position of privilege. It can be seemingly small–no accessible parking spaces at a small business despite laws requiring such. Or it can be huge–name calling, refusal to accommodate needs intentionally, verbal abuse. Most of the time, in our experience, it falls somewhere between the two, in the “ignorance grey area.”
A tendency of people in this “grey area” that promotes and enhances the ablist practices is the idea of a “special needs angel.” It’s okay to (do, say, not do, not say) xyz because So and So is “special” and “those people are always so child-like and loving!” And so on. Just about every parent or loved one of a special needs kid has heard something along those lines, usually as an excuse for poor behavior on the part of the speaker. It’s okay, they might say, that there’s no available ASL interpreter for this pre-K class. Kiddo is so happy and sweet… don’t you know special needs kids adapt well and are just so loving? They won’t mind if they can’t understand! Yes, such a thing is a hyperbolic example but the notion of a “special needs” angel persists, even in places we consider “safe” or an oasis from the “Outside World”. The combination of ableist behavior and the “special needs angel” idea is a toxic combination, especially for kids who are learning to adapt to a world that is not always compatible with their needs.
So how do we, as parents and loved ones and caregivers to kids with special needs, combat this Jello-mold of ignorant behavior? Speak up. If your kid is too young to speak up for themselves, be their voice. Teach them from the get-go that they deserve respect and consideration from everyone they come into contact with on a daily basis. Not being coddled or treated like spun glass, just respect. Let them be there when you ask the school for an interpreter, let them be there when you point out a lack of ADA approved access to a store owner (politely–more flies with honey than vinegar). If your words are met with ignorance, let the kiddo see you educate and share information. And disabuse the “special needs angel” stereotype so prevalent in schools, especially. Kids have moods, needs, desires, tempers… special needs and typical kids alike. The presence of a difference doesn’t mean they are exempt from being a kid, no matter what Lifetime movie of the week the stereotype perpetrator has seen.
An addendum to a previous column on ASL…
A few columns ago, I mentioned developing some signs for Spawnlet to use in Pagan situations and in ritual. An excellent blog on the topic of Paganism, ASL, deafness and more is Deaf Pagan Crossroads. Ocean’s blog has a wonderful series of posts regarding developing Pagan ASL signs, the proper use of signs and general info and discussion on how sign is taught. She graciously gave permission for me to post about her blog here and the following link goes to the first post in her discussion on Pagans signs : http://deafpagancrossroads.com/2012/06/13/thoughts-on-pagan-sign-language-part-one/ .
Next column: Seasonal crafts for kids with SPD!