All communities are in a state of unknown of what the future holds. Businesses and nonprofits across the world, including my own non-profit Puzzle Pieces, have temporarily closed up shop or severely limited services due to Covid-19. Without a clear end in sight, I am personally taking this time to reflect on what matters most and refocusing on the mission that led me to building awareness of disabilities in my own community.
March is usually spent celebrating those who have impacted my life the most, those with disabilities. March is a national awareness month not only for all disabilities, but also cerebral palsy and the globally-recognized World Down Syndrome Day is in March. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, our social media platforms would have been filled with schools and people captured in pictures wearing crazy socks, the Respect Starts Now campaign would have been in full force, and parents would have shared victories or awareness that would have encouraged others to understand and appreciate the value in all abilities.
While on this break, I encourage you to take time to build awareness in your families, especially your children. At some point, they will return to school and will be in public again where they will run into and interact with individuals with disabilities. Here are some tips that may help you start conversations in yourself or with your loved ones.
1. Each individual with a disability is impacted at different levels. Just because you know one person with a disability, doesn’t mean they are like the next person you meet with a disability. We need to be mindful that everyone is unique in their own way, and we must not place certain limitations or characteristics as a “one size fits all” category.
2. Most individuals don’t want others to define them by their disability, but they want you to understand and accept that their disability is a part of them. Instead they want to be recognized and valued that what makes them unique is in fact their disability, and is who they are.
3. Not all disabilities are visible. This is important to understand for so many reasons. When people think about those with disabilities, they tend to be more understanding and aware of those with physical disabilities or physical characteristics identifying them as a person with a disability. They tend to fail with showing patience and understanding towards those that may have a disability, but it isn’t as noticeable.
4. Using first person language when referring to someone with a disability is important. Always place the person first, never their disability. For example, the girl with autism, not the autistic girl.
5. Those with disabilities do not want pity. They desire acceptance and meaningful inclusion. They do not want someone to feel sorry for them or their families, but instead embrace and celebrate their differences as a valued quality.
6. Empower those with disabilities through recognizing their abilities and providing opportunities that center around their strengths. Don’t focus on what they can’t do or set limitations around their capabilities. Spend the time to support their strengths and don’t overlook the true value in what they can bring.
7. Because an individual doesn’t use words as their form a language, doesn’t mean they don’t have something to say. Take time to know and understand their language. If they struggle to find a way to communicate for you to understand, that doesn’t mean you should stop your communication to them.
8. Most families welcome curiosity and love the opportunity to share and connect their loved one with a person who is curious. The moment to share, connect, and offer communication with each other is the spark of becoming an inclusive community. Don’t be afraid to ask a question to better understand, while including your children in on the conversation.
9. Understand if you were to see an individual with a disability have a meltdown, it’s not because they are a “bad kid” or not well disciplined. Their behavior is a form of communication and they are learning through these meltdowns on how to get their needs met. And trust me their families are trying to figure out how to replace that meltdown with others ways to communicate their needs/wants. So be patient, it all takes time.
10. There are two things to consider when talking with those with disabilities that tend to be a common mistake made by those who just don’t know any better. They in fact don’t want you or need you to talk to them loudly or slowly for them to understand. You also don’t need to talk to an adult with disabilities like a child. Instead, make sure your language context is age appropriate and just let conversations be natural and easy.
In conclusion, I hope this message doesn’t get lost in the flood of messages we are deluged with in the 24-hour COVID-19 news cycle. Despite all of the uncertainties, the one blessing in all to come in the next few weeks is the power of time with our family. Make this time count, because there will never be another moment in our lifetime that forces us to slow down. What will matter after all of this in a few weeks is the strength we gained during it and the type of person we are on the other side of this crisis. Among all of the NTI lessons, the family time, and virtual meetings, I hope today’s article and topic can be something that inspires inclusion and acceptance in all that we do.