Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Disability and Friendship

"So proud of my daughter," she gushed. "Out of all the kids in her class, she chose to befriend the child with a disability and now even wants to have a play date with her!"

I'm used to hearing that sort of stuff. 

I'm even used to seeing moms beam with pride when they notice their typical kids being nice to my boys with Down syndrome. 

I get it. I used to be the mom of the typical kid thrilled that her daughter was playing with the "special needs boy" in preschool. 

I volunteered in my oldest's preschool class one day and was startled to realize that her classmate, Collin, didn't have hands. Due to some sort of congenital anomaly, he had a few digits on one arm about where his wrist was and a thumb-like appendage at the end of the other wrist. Collin was equally as startled that the parent volunteer that day happened to be an OT and didn't let him off the hook for the cutting task, but modified it, instead. 

My daughter, three-year-old at the time Michaela (Mick), was completely undaunted and included Collin in every game she played. 

I was the mother bursting with pride on the way home and having the enlightened conversation with her daughter:

Me: I'm so proud of you for including Collin in all your play. It can't be easy for him to do everything you can.
Mick: What do you mean?
Me: Well, without hands, it has to be hard for him to do some of the stuff that you can do. So, it's really nice of you to help him and play with him. 
You're probably going to be surprised to hear me say this, but what a terrible message to send to a young child.  

I'm all for encouraging friendships with kids of all abilities, but I'm also very sensitive that we send the right message when we do so. Let me point out what I did wrong. 

Instead of encouraging friendship, I introduced the concept of pity, ie, "it's hard for him to do things." By congratulating her for doing what came naturally (playing with a same-aged peer), I highlighted the difference and gave her superiority in the relationship by telling her he needs help. Collin was no longer an equal and I removed all reciprocity from the friendship. Her focus was then on attending to his perceived needs and her desire to be nice, rather than on his killer kickball skills (her favorite game) and his keen sense of humor. 

I don't know if Mick played with him differently after that. I hope not, but I'd be surprised if she didn't. 

I wish I could apologize to Collin's mom. I get it now.

Prior to our conversation in the car, Mick had no idea that Collin was different. Most little kids don't notice difference like adults and if they do, they seldom care. The rest of our conversation:
Mick: (Baffled) What are you talking about?
Me: (Plunging ahead like the idiot I was) Collin doesn't have any hands. Haven't you ever noticed that?!
Mick: What? No. We just play and stuff. I don't look at his hands. 
 Me: Well, it's important that you keep being nice to him anyway. 
If I could go back fourteen years to my then-self, I would've handled it differently:

Me: Hey, you seemed to play with Collin a lot. What do you like about him?
Mick: He plays kickball really good and he has his own ball! And he's funny.
Me: That's great! Should we have him over to play? 
Mick: Yeah!
Me: Okay. I'll call his mom.
 See how easy it could have been? Encouraging friendship without passing along my own hidden disability prejudices?

I know what it's like to be proud of your kid's choices and character. If you have a child that willingly friends kids of all abilities, well done, parent. You should be proud. There are a lot of kids out there who would bully and malign my boys. More still who wouldn't give them a second glance. 

But almost as much as I want a world in which no one would think to bully them, I want a world in which it wouldn't take a hero to befriend them, either. 

That begins with parents, even those of us who have other kids with disabilities. The initial quote was from a mom who also has a child with Down syndrome. While I get her pride, I hope she kept it cool with her daughter. I hope she stayed away from the traps of pity and superiority and focused on the friend and not the disability. 

It is said that disability is natural. So is friendship. Let's start there.


  1. Love this post. I wish every parent could read it and internalize it. Natural friendships, what a concept.

  2. This is such an excellent post, Tara. Must share.

  3. Restrategizing my own approach to these discussions!! Thank you.

  4. LOVE this. As the parent of twins, one of whom has Spina Bifida, I really hope people want to be friends with both of my daughters not because of their abilities or disabilities, or because they're seen as a project, but because they're people who are fun to be around and worth spending time with.

  5. Oh yes! Occasionally a child relates to my boy in such a way that I can see the parents have worded him up. You know, sympathetically talking to him in a slow, gentle voice. It makes me wince. My boy is just a boy like any other but different. Other kids whose parents haven't had 'the talk' just play footy with him! Great post.