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Inclusive and understanding: The world we want for anyone with special needs

October 28, 2013

My youngest sister was born when I was 11 years old.  I remember how excited our family was to welcome a new daughter and sister. As the oldest in the family, I was allowed to help take care of her and I remember feeling very grown up when I changed her diapers or fed her.

Michelle was born in August and sometime in late January, my parents gathered my sister and brother and me together to tell us that Michelle had Down syndrome. They explained that she was probably going to have some facial features that might look different and that she was likely to learn slower than other kids her age. They said they had not told us about her diagnosis earlier because they wanted us to get to know her as a person before we had any thoughts about her having a disability. I think they made a wise decision—we had gotten to know Michelle as our sister and that set the tone for the way we interacted with her from that point forward.

Michelle was able to grow up in an extended family that accepted her, loved her and didn’t pity her. She had dedicated teachers and was active in Special Olympics, competing in gymnastics, swimming, equestrian events, golf, bowling and other sports. She went to a school with other students who had various learning and cognitive difficulties. She went to summer camp; she went to the Girls Club after school and in the summer.

When she became a teenager, she started avoiding some activities and I was puzzled. Then one day, she told me she didn’t like to have people stare at her. I hadn’t noticed it before but when we were in public, people sometimes did stare at her or look at her and then whisper amongst themselves. No one was derisive or rude but she noticed people noticing her and it made her uncomfortable.

Michelle finished school and had a few jobs at fast food restaurants or on cleaning crews. She liked working but she was sometimes bothered that co-workers didn’t engage with her as much as they engaged with each other.  I don’t recall anyone being out and out mean—they just more or less ignored her but the problem was that she noticed she was not being included.

One summer when Michelle was in her 30s, I drove her to camp in North Carolina. She had been pretty quiet on the trip up there. When we got to the camp, her face lit up and she could hardly wait for me to leave. When I saw how happy and relaxed she was with her friends at camp, I saw the other side of the tension she sometimes exhibited in public. She wasn’t different at camp.  She was obviously relaxed and at ease.

As far as I know, Michelle was rarely bullied by other kids when she was a child. She wasn’t overtly mistreated at any of the jobs she held for which I am grateful. Yet this is not always the case. Children with cognitive differences, learning disabilities, physical conditions that cause them to look or move differently or children with conditions that affect social interaction such as autism frequently experience rejection, dis-inclusion, taunting, name-calling and even physical violence.

According to an article on, teachers and parents can do several things to help children with special needs make friends and facilitate inclusion:

  1. Include the child in the classroom: The teacher should prevent stigmatization of the child by calling on him or her during class activities and lessons, and involving them in tasks around the class, without becoming the token "teacher's pet."
  2. Include the child on the playground: If the child is playing alone or engaging in stereotypy on the playground, this will serve as bait for bullies. Playground leaders…can lead games on the playground involving the child and his or her peers, such as a game of kickball or red light/green light.
  3. Include the child on playdates: Parents should pinpoint children in the child's classroom that would be appropriate peers for a playdate. The more friends a child has, the less of a target they will be for bullying.
  4. Including the child will lead to independence: By becoming involved in socially reinforcing activities, such as games and playdates, the child will hopefully begin to seek out these scenarios independently, without an adult having to contrive the scenario for them
I tried a couple of things when I was with Michelle and I saw her getting uncomfortable in a particular setting. When I noticed someone staring at her, I would look directly at the person and say hello. If they greeted me, I would introduce myself and Michelle and then make some kind of small talk. This was an effective way to help Michelle engage with others and help others see her as a person to interact with rather than someone who looked different.

I encouraged Michelle to verbalize her thoughts about being stared at or ignored. Helping her find a voice for her inner feelings was good for her emotional development.

As a family, we found ways for Michelle to be with groups of typical kids as well as with groups where she wasn’t “different.” Both settings were valuable. She learned to handle herself in larger settings and she was able to excel and stand out in a positive way in activities aimed at her developmental level.

As I was writing this blog entry I saw a heartening article in the Orlando Sentinel. West Orange High School had elected their homecoming king and queen and the winners were individuals with Down syndrome. My favorite quote from the article was from the school’s football quarterback.  He said, "This didn't happen because we feel sorry for them or something," said Hayden Griffitts, 18, the football team's quarterback — and in the running himself for homecoming king. "Just the opposite. They really deserve it. I mean, homecoming is about bringing people together and having fun. And that's what they do."

Situations like this reflect the world I want to live in—a world where people are recognized for their gifts and contributions and where we can all be respected as the individuals we are.


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