|My daughter last year. Sometimes this is what special needs looks like.|
By now you have all heard of the horrid hateful letter sent from a neighbour to an Oshawa family raising a child with autism. My lovely friend Brenda Hoffman was one autism parent who posted the letter to Facebook. The vile letter targeted one family and one 13-year-old boy specifically, but it provoked outrage and horror and disgust across Canada – all very justified.
But here is my take. I am not surprised by the letter. Not even close. It’s disgusting and sad and inhuman and all of those things being posted on Facebook and Twitter. It’s also real. And I, for one am relieved to see it. Why? Because of the debate coming from this letter. Because hate clouds how some people think and it’s as far from okay as the full moon is from my home tonight. Because the worst type of prejudice and hate is the kind that is actually never exposed, just left to simmer under the surface as a thread throughout families and systems and society. Never dealt with, never acknowledged.
So bring on the letters. And let’s have a real debate. And let’s look at systems that fail kids with special needs and let’s take an action that is meaningful that helps move families forward in the future.
And let’s get real. Hands up all you special needs parents who have been on the receiving end of insensitive or hateful commentary about your child getting special treatment at school, or in the community? In case you can’t see through the computer screen, picture me with both hands up right now. I have heard it all. I’ve seen some miserable actions and reactions too. My daughter doesn’t have autism. She has sensory processing disorder and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and so on and so forth and she is brilliant and talented and charming and athletic. Her disability sometimes looks like autism. The disability at issue here really could belong to any of our children in the support group that I help co-faciliate at London Children’s Aid Society. Many of our kids act out and many of our families have minimal support. Many sit on wait lists for services for years. This is not just about autism. It’s hearing impairments, FASD, Tourette’s, attachment disorder, bipolar, and any other difference whether visible or invisible.
In our group we have all seen the stares and heard the comments and watched people turn away. In my experience, I have seen people leave our section of an airplane, changing seats. The angry glances have landed squarely on my shoulders when my daughter has a meltdown in public. Also, I have heard – “Oh you must be a saint” and “If I got one like that I would give her back.”
One of my children has a not so obvious invisible disability and another has mental health diagnoses. I have been in some situations and kitchens and classrooms where kids with differences are labelled the enemy. Earlier this month, at the NACAC North American Council for Adoptable Children conference in Toronto, several people in one workshop about disability stated their schools had many parents who openly objected to special needs kids and the “special” treatment they get.
In fact, I have seen many parents turn away when my other child has had meltdowns. Some people I know have openly indicated that they are disgusted their children have to share a class with a child who might need more than their child does. I have also heard them state loudly: How fair is that to my daughter that she gets less of the teacher just because she has to deal with a child like that?
Sometimes this mama supports other special needs families on line and in person. I have never ever heard the comment why don’t you just euthanize that animal, as was horrifically written in the letter that made headlines. But I have heard, inside a building where our support group meets: why didn’t she just abort that child? Why does she keep breeding?
One thing should be abundantly clear: an accommodation is made so that a child with special needs can attend school. Period. Full stop. It is a right to access the building and the system. Does a neuro-typical or average or able-bodied child have a right to go to school and ability to be there without modifications or accommodations? Yes. So if my child needs an educational assistant, then that is to help her get through the door and sit in the classroom. Sometimes it is to help her stay safe. Does a ramp help a child in a wheelchair get in the door and strive for independence? Is it special treatment? Nope. It’s a right to be in the building called a school.
I am relieved to see this letter get attention as it has. Let it be a catalyst. It has been reported that the mother of the child in question has MS and the grandmother often cares for Maxwell, the young boy with this diagnosis. So put that in perspective for a moment and consider how challenging the family dynamic must already be without the added stress of hate crimes and horrid neighbours. Instead of asking how can I help the neighbour thought an anonymous letter calling a boy a retard would somehow FIX things. Ask yourself does the child have a support worker? If not, why not?
The letter is hateful and mean and vile. And I am not at all surprised. Not even close. Don’t turn away. Look at it. This is where we live every day when we have children with special needs. Sometimes there are kind people and loving neighbours hidden in our midst. Often there are those who think we would be better off without you, or your child.
Hate, Indifference and Ignorance – What Will You Change?
This week there is twitter outrage about the mean neighbour. There is now a Facebook group supporting the grandma who got the letter. There have been dozens of print articles and TV stations that picked up the story. But where does that lead? What changes? Will there be more support for the family? Will there be systems set up to help children graduating from special needs child status to youth to adult. Not likely. Will the mean glances stop when I am at the store and my daughter has a meltdown? Doubtful.
Now, after you have all read the tweets and the letter and stopped and seethed I want you to stop and think. What will you do differently next time you see a child with special needs who needs support? What will you change? What does the letter make you want to change or fix or do? Now what are you waiting for?