Since becoming a quadriplegic three years ago, I have quickly learned that people don't know a whole lot about the disability community. When you're uneducated about something, I think it's normal to feel uncomfortable with it. Maybe even afraid of it.
While out in public I often get stares. People will even avoid the aisle I'm in at a store and quite often jump out of my way as if I'd run them over. Keep calm. It's only a wheelchair!
Wheelchair users don't exactly have the luxury of blending in when they want to. Sometimes I wish I could, but when I'm out and about I personally try and make an effort to smile and wave when I roll by a child. Giving a child a good experience may ultimately make them more understanding and comfortable. The problem is though that some parents don't know how to react to their child's curiosity.
Here are few insights about how you can desensitize your child around people with disabilities.
While rolling along at the mall the other day, a kid stared at me while standing with his mom in a store. It wasn't a scared or judgmental stare, but clearly he was just curious. He said something to his mom about my wheelchair and I was compelled to stop and say hello. I smiled and asked the little boy if he wanted to see something cool.
I have spinners on my wheels so I made sure to give it a good spin for him. His eyes lit up and he asked excitedly if he could try. Well of course I said yes. He was totally diggin' the wheels.
His mom seemed to think it was pretty cool that I stopped to let him get a closer look. She told him to tell me thank you as I rolled away and waved goodbye. But just as I was starting to leave he yelled for me to wait. I turned around.
"What is it, buddy? Did you have a question you wanted to ask me?"
He paused for one second but then said, "No I just wanted to give you a hug." He then ran up, wrapped his little arms around me and gave me a sweet peck on the cheek. My heart melted! I wasn't exactly used to such awesome encounters with kids.
That little boy's mom handled it perfectly. She didn't tell him to be quiet when he said something about my chair.
What parents don't realize is that when you hush your child in a situation like this, you're essentially telling them that this is something they shouldn't ask about. It becomes a taboo subject. If your kid asks you "Why is that person in a wheelchair?" Use this as a teachable moment. Simply tell them "their legs don't work as well as they could so they use wheels to get around." If I hear a parent answering their child's question I might stop, smile and let the child see the chair and ask me a question if they would like.
But if I see a parent hush their child, it actually makes me feel really uncomfortable. I would've never turned around to talk to that cute kid had his mother hushed him. And our awesome interaction would've never happened.
When I'm rolling around in public, it's really common for people to jump out of my way even if I'm still like 10 feet away. Now I'm not talking about nicely stepping aside. I mean they literally JUMP out of my way. It's super awkward and in those moments I'm reminded of how people view me in my chair. Often times these people have their children with them. They will grab their child and quickly pull them out of the way.
I know they are trying to be courteous but the reality is your child knows you're treating me differently. You don't do that for someone walking around so why would you for someone on wheels?
It's probably because you yourself are a little uncomfortable around something you're not used to encountering. I totally get that. But try to be aware of how your reaction impacts your child. You are their protector.
I see the faces on these children and a lot of times they go from smiling and being care free to being very timid and scared. It definitely sends the wrong message. There's nothing wrong with giving me space if I can't get by, obviously! But your child can tell when you're uncomfortable.
It's really simple actually. Just lead by example. If you act comfortable around someone with a disability, your child is likely to follow your lead. Children will have questions and it's OK to answer. If someone with a disability overhears, realize that most of us do not care. We'd much rather you answer your child's question than to hush them and jerk them away.
It's important that your child knows a few things about people who may have a disability. Make it clear that someone with a disability is nothing to be afraid of. You are either born with a disability or you acquire a disability through an accident. Disabilities are not contagious.
But here is the big life lesson. They need to realize that everyone is different and that's OK. Some differences you can see more than others. Some people have different likes, dislikes, personalities, cultures and so on.
All of these differences should be accepted and embraced. So when you are out and about with your child just makes a point to treat us like you'd treat anybody else. No need to stare, ignore, avoid or jump out of the way. I'm just on wheels instead of feet. The fact that I use a wheelchair is only one characteristic about me. I'm willing to bet I have more in common with you than you even know.
Rachelle Friedman is a c6 quadriplegic who was paralyzed at her bachelorette party in 2010 after being playfully pushed into a pool. Her story went international and has been featured on the Today Show, CNN, HLN, MSNBC, Vh1 and other various media outlets. Since then she has become a motivational speaker, blogger, and ambassador for the spinal cord injury community. Rachelle is currently writing a book due out in Spring of 2014. Visit www.rachellefriedman.com to read more about Rachelle's story.
Rachelle writes regularly for The Mobility Resource, where this post first appeared.