In a world in which everyone tiptoes around the issue of special needs, it is hardly surprising that children are growing up totally insensitive to the needs of people with disabilities. But, suddenly, an incident comes to light which makes us realise that it’s about time we taught our children to be more aware, empathetic and supportive of those with special needs.
“Some time ago, a relative’s son carelessly called my child a ‘lost case’. I felt an ache in my heart that was so deep,” recollects Bala Bharati, a Tamil author and father of an autistic son. This was not a one-off incident; such comments are fairly commonplace in the lives of Bala, his wife and their little son. Worse still, theirs is hardly an isolated case.
The greatest challenge that people living with a disability face is that of ignorance – yes, even in this golden age of information and awareness. And in not understanding, or even attempting to understand, the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ of their situation, society actively robs them of their dignity.
And sadly, this ignorance and insensitivity begin at home. To this day, we – the hyper-educated parents of modern India – look at a visually-challenged person and refer to him as ‘blind’. We sympathise with our ‘poor friends’ who have a child who is a ‘spaz’. And while, we are busy being insensitive, our tender little children are equally busy internalising these attitudes – with every intention of aping them at the first opportunity they get. We are creating armies of children who are unable to grasp the concept of sensitivity simply because their role models seem to have no concept of it.
But really, as parents, the onus is on every one of us to change the way society perceives disability. Our children must be made aware of what it means to live with a disability and be taught to empathise, not sympathise.
Ignorance can hurt
Bala recently wrote a book on this very subject. Titled Chandru Ku Enna Aachu? (What Happened to Chandru?), it talks about the pressing need to educate children about special needs. “Personal experience has taught me how much ignorance (on the topic) can hurt. Children learn a lot from their parents; they learn by imitating. The first step to sensitising children to special needs is to change how we ourselves perceive it. If we call a visually-challenged individual ‘blind’, our child will follow suit. If we heap sympathies such as ‘poor thing’ on a child who has, say, cerebral palsy, our kids will also take up that sentiment of pity. And really, nobody wants to be pitied,” says Bala. He elaborates, “In my book, I drive home my point through the story of a boy called Chandru, who is living with special needs. Another child questions an adult about Chandru’s condition and she explains that disability is a part of Nature’s diversity. Chandru is like any other child – he too has aspirations, desires… only, he has some additional needs.”
Deepa Garwa, blogger and mother of two, says, “There are two schools of thought with respect to educating children about special needs. One is to not say anything at all, which was what I did. When my 11-month-old daughter was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome, my son was five-and-a-half years old. We didn’t sit him down for a chat. Children, by nature, are much more accepting than adults. They have a subliminal understanding that adults often discount. My son instinctively understood that his little sister was unwell and turned very protective of her. He watches over her intently and tells his friends that he has a ‘special sister’ who has Down’s syndrome. Alternatively, effective communication with children is extremely helpful. Either way, there is no right time to sit a child down and give him a lecture. Instead, a steady attitude and constant reinforcement of the idea that special needs is different only in its needs and in no other aspect, goes a long way in raising children who are sensitive to disability.”
But how do you sensitise your child?
Those with special needs are a minority, which automatically makes them ideal candidates for social stigma. How can this unfortunate state of things be remedied through our children? Lakshmi Gopalakrishnan, a special needs educator in Chennai, says, “Most children are bound to have some experience meeting a person with a disability early in life. This is a good place to start. Ask your child what she thought about that person. ‘Is he different?’ ‘If yes, how?’ ‘Is it in the way he looks, behaves, thinks and feels?’ It is better to let children discover a concept through skilled guidance rather than by giving them direct opinions and enforcing rules. Sensitising children to special needs can begin as early as when they are four to five years old, as they are extremely accepting at this stage. They understand the meaning of disability better than most adults.” She suggests that parents introduce the concept with a story about a child trying to cope with challenges of a physical or mental nature. Use simple language. Say things like, ‘He had a fever/an accident and that caused him to lose certain functions of his body/mind,’ to illustrate the cause of the disability. Or, use the power of demonstration. “Blindfold your child and ask him to try performing some routine activities. Or, ask him to communicate without speaking. Be careful not to make it seem like a fun game; that would just trivialise the issue,” points out Lakshmi.
The role of educators
“Imagine if a young girl with stunted growth meets an able-bodied child at the mall and he stares continuously at her and asks, ‘What’s wrong with her?’ There can be nothing more hurtful to a person who is already trying to make the best of a situation,” says Vasanthi Raghuvir, founder of the Shakti Foundation. “It, therefore, becomes very important for primary caregivers to nurture these values in their wards. Parents, teachers and caregivers must all consistently assert the importance of empathy. Shakti Foundation works towards raising awareness in schools. How do we do that? We get able-bodied children to interact with kids with special needs. We pair them up to help them experience, first-hand, what coping with a disability is like. Most of us take our sound bodies and minds for granted, forgetting that those with a disability have to fight for everything – even basic dignity,” she explains. Vasanthi believes that since children are often more accepting than adults, small changes in the syllabus can create a huge impact in raising children who are not only more aware but also more empathetic. “One hour of a special class is more than enough to impart these values. If you compare the situation in India with the state of affairs in other countries, you will realise that we are almost backward in our lack of awareness. Sensitivity is not an issue related to special needs alone. Empathy and a helping nature are what make us human. All this judging and labelling has to stop,” she reiterates.
Labels are not meant for people
People are not defined by their disability. Teach children not to label people. Explain to them that using someone’s personal attributes to identify them is very hurtful. Ask them how they would feel if someone were to identify them as, ‘short’ or ‘dark’ or ‘skinny’. Labels are for merchandise, not for human beings.
Focus on the other aspects
There is more to every person than strikes the eye. Tell your kids that people with disabilities have other facets too. They are good friends, they are good at maths, they are patient listeners, they like to play pranks on others and they enjoy good music. In other words, they are in every way (other than their specific needs) just like us, with the same kind of joys, aspirations and expectations. The least we can do is be understanding of their challenges and help out when we can.
Speak to the person directly
When you meet someone with a disability, it often happens that you speak to their caretakers or parents. You avoid actual contact with the person. Instead, you should talk to her directly and encourage your children to do so too. You should make eye contact, but not stare. Everyone needs that human touch, and it is very important to make a person with special needs feel accepted.
How you ask questions matters
It is only natural to have questions about a person’s condition. Children especially tend to be extremely curious. The right questions, asked the right way, can let a person know that his disability is not being ignored. But it is important to get your children to frame questions in a way that isn’t offensive.
Offer timely assistance
A person with a disability needs assistance from time to time, but not all the time. For example, helping a visually challenged person cross the road will be appreciated, but offering help, out of the blue, to a person sitting at a lunch table in a wheelchair might not be. When someone does seek your help, be generous with it.
Words to avoid
One of the greatest challenges most people experience in interacting with individuals with special needs is not knowing what to say out of fear of offending them. However, it is okay to say the word ‘walk’ around someone in a wheelchair. They hear these words often enough and will not resent your saying it. However, there are some other typically used words which can be hurtful. Here’s a list: Handicapped, Victim, Blind/Deaf/Dumb, Cripple, Retarded, Stupid, Defect, Confined.
It would be good to ensure that these words are removed from your dictionary as well as that of your child. Remember, it is your duty to make your child sensitive to special needs.