The dynamics within a family or a community in which children with disabilities reside seem to change when dealing with the disabled child. People raise their voices when speaking to these children, people talk past the children and speak to the care giver, people often don’t seem to know what to say, where to look, what to do when in the presence of a disabled child.
More than these aspects of social unease is the effect the children and their disabilities have on the parenting skills of just about everyone around them. Besides having the expectation that the disabled child is probably very delicate (breakable), people also seem to deal with disabled children as if they need, require or warrant special privileges. Disabled kids can get away with outrageous things that cross lots of boundaries that the other kids wouldn’t think about trying to cross. Not all disabled kids, but a lot of them are treated with these types of deference.
I suspect that all these aspects of uneasy interaction between adults (you won’t find any kids under the age of 4 behaving this way toward disabled peers) has to do with placing the disabled children in other categories than “regular” kids. After all, they have problems don’t they? Well, yes they do have various difficulties with dealing with Life that many other children don’t have, but believe me, they don’t need more of them just because the rest of society has difficulty deciding how to interact with them. A spoilt child who acts out and expects people to put up with it is almost universally disliked, and so will be the disabled child, once he or she is no longer a cute toddler, babe in arms, whatever. A child who never gets to answer for him or herself, who is talked over or around, whom people never look in the eye is going to have even greater difficulty figuring out how to behave in society.
So, the next time you see a child in a special chair, walking with assistive devices, having greater difficulty relating to the rest of society for any reason, remember this simple phrase; disabled children are children first. They deserve no less.
Dave Rohe is a recently retired physio having practiced in New Zealand since 2004. He originally qualified in the USA, subsequently practicing in Malawi, Egypt and Cambodia prior to emigrating to New Zealand in 2003. He has enjoyed management positions in pediatric and adult outpatient facilities as well as taught physiotherapy for 15 years at the University of Georgia. He is currently living in Parakai with his wife, Sharon Robinson, a local midwife, near his adult children who are working, and one of whom is studying to qualify as a physio through the programme at the University of Otago. His articles previously appeared in local newspapers in Taranaki and on the blog site sponsored by NZSPT.