Raising our children to be accepting of all types of people has always been a top priority for me and my husband but it was never a personal battle until after my injury. As two young, Caucasian, able-bodied, straight people we were never in an obvious minority. We never felt singled out for attributes we had no control over and we blended in to our community without effort. Then, all of a sudden, I found myself in a wheelchair and we didn’t blend in as easily as we had in the past. With stares coming from numerous directions, our determination to raise accepting children only increased. But how? How do you integrate something into their little lives if it isn’t something you see very often? How do you teach something without pointing it out and bringing attention to it? Then my children – and every child I’ve met since my accident -taught me a thing or two about acceptance.
Recently my daughter put some pieces of the puzzle together and discovered that I’m different. No, I don’t mean she realized that I like dipping my french fries in ice cream or that my love of musicals is borderline unhealthy. I mean she now sees that most people she meets don’t live their lives on wheels. She also has a firm grasp on the fact that I was once able to walk and now, well, not so much. She will repeat the order of events very matter-of-factly.
“Mommy used to stand. Then she fell in a hole. Now she’s in a wheelchair”.
And then she moves on to something else. I have provided more explanation for why cars don’t talk and toys don’t come to life. Literally. However, I always assumed when she truly understood this difference in me that it would break my heart. But watching her come around to this inevitable truth was actually inspiring. In her innocence, she has reminded me how simple the world truly is through the eyes of a child. That acceptance comes as naturally to children as breathing and sleeping. To a child, every person regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or physical ability is seen as a potential playmate – a potential friend.
There are many adults that struggle with how to approach me. There is an overwhelming desire to show that they see me for who I am and not the disability. I have gotten a lot of comments like “I don’t even see the wheelchair” which I completely understand is fraught with good intentions but I almost laugh because I don’t think my wheelchair is of the invisible variety (you have to pay extra for that). But kids can somehow question the wheelchair and the disability without losing the human aspect of my existence. That is not something we teach. That is something we are born with and somehow manage to lose aspects of along the way.
In saying all of that, my question has evolved. I no longer wonder how we teach acceptance but instead wonder how we encourage our children to hold on to what they already possess. We need to support them and embrace their innate ability to accept people as they are. It is a such a special and universal quality in kids and it is heartbreaking that, as adults, we model behaviour that changes it for the worse. Because we all lose aspects of it along the path to adulthood.
I work at building my own acceptance level back up every day with the hopes that my children won’t lose as much of theirs. I believe that a lot could change in this world if we learned to embody the acceptance, tolerance and love of a child. And I think the more human diversity you can expose children to at an early age, the better. That is why I try to be visible at my children’s school and why I’m open to answering questions from inquiring little minds who are just trying to figure out how to integrate this new and different thing into their range of normal. Because if they can achieve that integration and grow with it, they will become one less adult who is uncomfortable with disability and one more adult who encourages acceptance.