Last month, Katherine Heigl and Josh Kelley adopted a baby girl from Korea; a new bunch of photos of the proud mama and Naleigh recently came out. Practically every article on them, if not every headline, mentions that the child has "special needs." The couple hasn't elaborated--why should they?--and of course, everyone's eager to know. Roam around the web and you'll see all sorts of musings about how Naleigh looks so...normal. Sample comment from "Just Jared":
Does anyone know what's wrong that makes her a special needs baby? Just curious, because she looks like a healthy little girl. :-)
This stereotyping bugs the hell out of me. I have a little boy with special needs who looks "healthy," though his muscles are pretty screwed up and his brain's got damage. Max had a stroke at birth--yes, babies can have strokes--that resulted in cerebral palsy. Yet to glance at him, he seems like any other cute, happy six-year-old. He's able to walk; the cp mostly affects the way he uses his hands and his speech.
Max is in a school with kids who have Down Syndrome. Some of them are a lot more functional than Max is, though I am sure some people would assume just the opposite. And that's looksism, pure and shallow. It's harmful, too, either way. It means that people can underestimate the abilities and intelligence of people with special needs who "look" the part. It means that people may hesitate to help people with special needs who don't "look" the part.
There have been times, when Max was younger, that I've had to beg cooks at restaurants to puree his food because they didn't quite get Max (he doesn't chew all that well). Once, a guy manning the bouncy castle at our annual block party wouldn't let me go in with Max, who can have major trouble with balance. "Oh, he's fine!" he said. "He can walk!" Max couldn't get off his butt and started crying, he was so scared. Guilty-faced, the guy let me in.
Appearance is no indication of abilities [insert cheap Sarah Palin crack here]. Let's get past the looks, people--and the special needs witch hunt.
Ellen Seidman is a magazine editor, mom of two and professional snacker. Her blog is To The Max.