Monday, April 30, 2007

Sandbox Lessons

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2007

I was listening to the song, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” from the musical South Pacific. The song asserts that children are not born racist, they must learn to be racist. I think that same truth applies to ableism. Children are not born believing that some differences make a person inferior; they have to be taught. It's easy to see how Jerry Lewis’s Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, inaccessible buildings, overt discrimination, or the common use of words such as "retard" or "cripple" teach ableism. It is more challenging to realize that even well-intentioned people, themselves products of the culture we live in, can inadvertently foster the ableist paradigm in children.

My mom remembers a telling story that took place on an ordinary day many years ago. My two sisters and I were about 4 years old at the time (we’re triplets) and were playing in our backyard sandbox. It was a warm, sunny summer afternoon. My sisters were running back and forth between the sandbox and the hose to get water for our sandcastles. I was lying on my stomach, as I often did, playing in the sand with my hands, my shovel, and my truck. We were laughing and having fun.

Unbeknownst to my sisters and me, a six year old boy who was visiting our next door neighbors was intently watching us through the chain link fence.

At some point, one of my sisters went near the fence, and the boy asked her, “Does he walk?”

My mom says she held her breath, ready to jump into the conversation and stand up for me. Ever the advocate, she would've said something sappy like, “He can’t walk, but he's really good at playing in the sand.”

Had my protective grandparents been around, one of them might have scolded the boy, “Hey! That’s a rude question!”

An educator or social worker, seeing a potential peer socialization experience for me, might have answered with a heavy, deliberate sigh, “No… he's not able to walk.” Then with forced enthusiasm, “Why don't you go play with him? It doesn't have to be very long, just a few minutes. You'll feel good helping the boy."

A healthcare provider, intending to minimize the importance of physical differences, might have lectured the boy on my condition of cerebral palsy, "The motor area of his brain was damaged because he was born too early. This damage causes him not to have good control of his arms and legs. Even though his body is different from our bodies, he's really just like us.”

The boy's dad, not wanting his son to be offensive or rude, might have pulled his son away from the fence, “Shhh…. Don't stare! Don't make him feel bad."

On the surface, these responses to the boy's question may seem appropriate. But imagine, if you will, the boy at the fence asking my sister a different question. Suppose he asked, "does he have red hair?"

"No, he doesn't, but he's really good at playing in the sand."

"Hey! That's a rude question!"

Heavy sigh, “No… he doesn't have red hair.” Forced enthusiasm, “Why don't you go play with him? It doesn't have to be very long, just a few minutes. You'll feel good helping the boy."

"He’s genetically heterozygous for the brown haired trait. Even though his body is different from our bodies, he's really just like us.”

“Shhh…. Don't stare! Don't make him feel bad."


So, how did the four year old's and six year old’s interaction play out that sunny summer day?

Not assuming any hidden meaning to the boy’s “Does he walk?", my sister simply said, "no."

The boy accepted her simple answer to his simple question. Then he moved on to his more important question, "Can I play? We could use my yellow dump truck to move the sand.”

The boy, and soon the neighbor kids, came over. The sand castles got bigger, the laughter louder. We all had a great time.


Be sure to check out the many other posts for Blogging Against Disablism Day. Thanks, Goldfish for organizing this event.

22 comments:

Ruth said...

This is a great post illustrating how different factors contribute to ableism - when humans being together really can be as simple as our most wonderful asset - children - make it. Thanks David.

Sally's Life said...

Super illustrative analysis.
And I love your icon.
Children; I like to connect with them before their parents realise they are watching my wheels, just a smile, an engagement, that I hope will remain with them to offset what willl be learned from society.
Thank you.

The Goldfish said...

You're so right that we learn this stuff. The children I have met and spoken to have far less trouble getting over the facts of the matter than adults, who seem to wish to impose some sort of emotional narrative to the facts of my impairment. Great post. :-)

Sharon said...

I really like this post.
I've heard children asking my daughter why her little brother (who is autistic) can't talk, she just blithely says 'he's autsitic' and gets on with playing. It's ususlly enough for the questioner, even if they don't know what 'autistic' means.

seahorse said...

That really moved me. It makes me proud of my son, who is going to struggle not so much with his own feelings about me using a wheelchair but with the reaction of others. I just hope the kids we know can help us stay positive.

Kathryn said...

David, Great post. Great examples and great writing. I always admire writers who can get across so much meaning so succinctly. Thanks for sharing this. Sometimes when kids ask me about Ellie I am not sure what to say. This really helps.

Penny L. Richards said...

Oooh, I've probably been guilty of the sappy-mom non-sequitur reply ("No, but he's really good at playing in the sand!"), at times. I do try to keep it simple with kids, and just answer the question I'm asked, but.... at least I'm really good at playing in the sand???

Thanks for the reminder that some common answers are ridiculous (at best), if you think about them a bit.

Never That Easy said...

Unerringly true - what a fantastic post. I've always had the same experience with children - they just get it. Until some grown-up can't just let it be.

Nicole said...

Oh yes, you made me think. I have a daughter who has Down syndrome, and I usually factually answer her questions, but my other kids I might try to explain why their ? is rude....and you're right...it's just a question. :)

Michelle said...

I loved this post and how you described how different individuals would have answered such a simple question...when all the answer needed to be was what your sister gave. If only as adults we didn't have to over-analyze everything, just a simple yes and no - and then like the 6 yr old boy - just go on over and play!

My post is up as well!

Dream Mom said...

Nice post David. I am probably guilty of the sappy Mom comment too. When someone asks if my son speaks, I'll say, "No, but he likes it when you talk to him." But it's true, Dear Son does like it.

Personally, I really like it when people ask questions about my son. More often than not, they are not being mean, they just don't know the answer or don't know what to say. I try to make them comfortable and in turn make it easy to be friends with people who are disabled, like my son. And kids, well, they are are the easiest. Simple answers are best.

Sara said...

Ah, this is great. Thanks.

imfunnytoo said...

David, you've got the greatest way of showing how simple it is to notice the disabilist/abelist language works...I love this post.

Philip. said...

'Children are not born believing that some differences make a person inferior'

That is so true! It's society as a whole, and particularly the naive, spiteful sections which instill this into innocent children.

Love the post!

Attila The Mom said...

Wow! What a great illustration. I really loved this post!

Connie said...

David, I've got to ask: have you, or are you thinking of studying creative writing? I think I see a book in your future! Love the post...

Tokah said...

Right on! That was a great illustration you drew us.

Laurie said...

I love the post, Dave. It's a beautifully written account of that story.

mike said...

Congratulations on winning Post of the Week.

beta mum said...

Very nicely put.
It's an interesting parallel you make with racism.
We live in a Caucasian area of Britain, and I've posted about the effect this has had on my son's perceptions of people from different ethnic groups...
http://www.cathykeir.co.uk/blog/they-all-look-the-same/

Well done with Post of the Week.

Tom the Twit said...

Hi David,

I'm a new reader to your blog and I would just like to congrarulate you on the wonderful writing and of course, winning Post of the Week - fab! I'll be back for more soon!

Tom (another blogger with CP)

mike said...

This post has been shortlisted for Post of the Year. Best of luck...