‘Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow’ – Helen Keller
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.
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 has special needs. 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.
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?
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.”
Parents can 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. Make your children more sensitive to special needs.Sensitise your child to people with special needs and encourage him to treat them like he treats everyone else. Here’s how!
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.
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.
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. 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.
It, therefore, becomes very important for primary caregivers to nurture values in their wards. Parents, teachers and caregivers must all consistently assert the importance of empathy. As parents and teachers, 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.