After watching this heartwarming clip where an orangutan adopts orphan tiger cubs, I wondered what the world would be like if we could all be blind to differences.
Each year when Caila starts in a new class we have to go about educating the parents and teachers about who she is and what she is capable of. The first part of our letter explains that we have typical expectations for her and we want for her is what any other parent wants for their child. We then go on to explain that if their kids ask about Caila they should not label her, but rather explain that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. We constantly remind therapists, teachers and friends to judge her by her abilities and not her diagnoses.
I know the parent of the naughty child who disrupts the class or the shy child who never opens their mouth don't have to send letters to other class parents. We do because regardless of Caila's functioning the world sees her almond eyes and her differences. Imagine if the world was full of my hero the orangutan.
We were at a Shabbat meal a few weeks back and Caila and another child got into an altercation over a game. We heard the disturbance and I went with the other child's mom to check in on the situation. The mom picked up her daughter and said to her 5 year old "It's not you honey she has special needs". Not only is Caila forever labelled, but the kid was taught to be judgmental and to never take responsibility for her actions. Imagine the learning opportunity if the mother explained to the child the importance of sharing instead, or described the fact that different people have different strengths and weaknesses. Imagine, if that mother would have reacted the way she would have if Caila was a typical kid.
For some reason people think if they attach the word cute to Caila it makes the situation ok. When she was three cute was appropriate as we label kids that age "cute". But at synagogue on a Friday night when someone I have never met before labels my 7 year old cute they are simply using nice language to mask their judgmental attitude. In addition they are taking away the opportunity for my child to prove that she is able and capable. They are limited by their own jaded perceptions.
I was personally terrified of people with special needs before I gave birth to Caila. There was a group of kids with Down syndrome who attended my synagogue and I distinctly remember my discomfit when I saw them. I recall many occasions being frustrated by the slow cashier in a supermarket or the person with special needs doing a bad job at packing my bags. I know that people's reactions are normal for what they have learnt. That's why I think inclusion is so important. It's a civil right and a matter of social justice to include all people with special needs. Most importantly, Caila interacting in the world can change you just like she changed me and my family. When we were at a meeting at Caila's school the principal stressed that as much as Caila has the right to be included her whole school community learn from having Caila included.
I hope that my honesty and sharing of our real life creates discussion and food for thought. Ultimately I hope that we can all be like the loving Orangutan and blind to differences.