“On your mark . . . get set . . . GO!”
Two at a time we’d race down the hallway, using our arms for locomotion, dragging our legs behind us. I never remember who won; I just remember the fun of the competition. Bobby, Jeannette, and me, Dana and David and Janine—just a little gang of neighborhood kids thinking up games for a rainy day.
Pretty original to think of only using our arms, right? Instead of just running or skipping?
Well, kind of. Actually, it was our way of including my little sister, Jeannette, who had been born with both her hips displaced and never had the leg strength to crawl on hands and knees like the rest of us. The best she could do was pull herself along on her arms. At the time, I thought all kids started out crawling that way—it never occurred to me that Jeannette’s progress was different.
Anyway, that was how Jeannette moved. So when it was playtime we figured we’d do the same.
Did we think we were practicing “inclusion” back then?
Of course not. We wanted to race. And since we couldn’t all walk, someone suggested we crawl. And since Jeannette didn't really crawl, well, couldn’t we all “drag”? We were pretty pleased when we’d figured out our fair racing plan!
Besides, the point of the whole thing was to have fun, and I can still remember Jeannette collapsing in a fit of giggles back in the living room after one race, and Bobby (who was also disabled) squealing with delight. Mom would serve up fresh-baked cookies and milk when we were done, and no one cared if Jeannette needed a bib and an extra washcloth to get through her snack.
It was natural to include Bobby and Jeannette in everything we did, whether we were hanging out with friends in the neighborhood or goofing around with our nine cousins at Ocean Beach. The grown-ups certainly expected that we’d play together—so why wouldn’t we? And we had a great time doing it. It took a long time for me to realize that there were other people who actually felt sorry for us. As if “having” to play with Bobby and Jeannette were a burden.
They had no idea how wrong they were. I’m not saying that there weren’t challenges from having special sibs in my life, that there weren’t times when I wanted to go off and play without them—but I’m pretty certain from watching my own two kids grow up that everyone wants to play without their brothers and sisters some time. And I’m not saying that there weren’t some difficult issues unique to having a sibling with special needs. What I am saying is that there was never a need for pity.
My two best friends in the neighborhood didn’t pity us, and neither did my cousins—they just took everything in stride, and we adapted to Bobby and Jeannette’s needs. We didn’t do all our activities with Bobby and Jeannette—but we did most things with them. They were our buddies. Two of the gang.
An elementary school classmate of mine just sent me a message on Facebook. She said, “I don’t remember thinking your family was different as a kid. I recognized Bobby’s and Jeannette’s disabilities, but I think because of the way you all lived, I saw your family as ‘typical.’” (Thanks, Alicia, for sharing that!) When we expect it to be the norm, most of the time, it is.
I see it in schools where I work—kids out on the playground making up games with their special needs peers, asking them to join in, and making modifications as they go along. It’s part of the beauty of early inclusion programs, which benefit disabled and neuro-typical kids alike.
How natural, how normal, to take our peers’ differences in stride when we are young. You can’t talk to me? Let’s make silly faces. You can’t walk? Let’s play tickle games. You can’t crawl? Let’s have a drag race.
Every disabled child must have an educational program designed to meet his or her specific needs. Some of those are unique needs—for mobility, for speech and communication, for self-help skills and daily living skills. For many students, that means time in a special setting, away from the regular classroom. It’s critical learning time. But the opportunity to interact and socialize with “typical” peers is also critical—for everyone involved.
Watch kids who have been in classes with a severely disabled peer since preschool or kindergarten. There is a bond, a sensitivity in their relationships that works both ways. You can see it in their interactions—and the fact that one child may not be verbal doesn’t matter, nor does the fact that they aren’t together all day long. These kids are friends. And friends don’t need to discuss things to know that they’re accepted. That feeling translates wordlessly.
Watch older kids participate with friends in programs such as Project Unify in Rhode Island, or Unified Sports in Connecticut, where student athletes with special needs are partnered up with other student athletes to compete in organized team sports, such as basketball, volleyball, or track. You can’t tell me that there isn’t a lot of benefit to all the participants there. This is competition and camaraderie at its best.
Talk to my cousin, John. He’s an intelligent guy with a successful business, and one of the best human beings I’ve ever met. Ask him who his best friend was throughout life. He’ll tell you it was my brother, Bobby.
No, there was never a need for pity from anyone who worried about my relationship with my brother and sister. As an adult, I think I was luckier than most people, because I learned so much from my siblings. I see the world differently because of them.
Growing up with my brother and sister has taught me that the world is a better place when we’re all out there pulling together. When we learn at an early age that differences don’t have to be obstacles. When we find creative ways to work and play together. Inclusion practices at school allow others to enjoy a richer life experience—like the life experiences my siblings, my friends, my cousins and I shared. They benefit everyone.
That’s because kids are inventive. They figure out ways to connect with each other. And when kids realize at a young age that everyone is different, but everyone is a person, then it’s only natural for them to find ways to relate to people who are differently-abled as they grow older.
And isn’t that something we could all benefit from in the world today? A little tolerance. A little respect. And maybe even a friendly drag-race or two.