One of the most amazing things about differently-abled children is that their aura, personality and genuine love is so powerful that you’re bound to be like me right now, thinking non-stop about their beautiful faces and the unforgettable conversations and moments I had with them yesterday.
When I met Justin* the first thing that drew me to him was his smile. We looked at each other and we bonded almost instantly. He is 14, has cerebral palsy and like any other teenager he loves to socialize and tease. We did a lot of that yesterday, I took him for a super-duper fast spin around the room with his wheelchair (He wanted to go faster but I told him he is too young to get a driver’s license!) You know teenagers these days…
There was something about the way he looks at you, like his eyes are directly speaking to you. Just by taking a little time to look at them, you can read and sense the excitement of a young man wanting to belong. A deep desire to be included in all activities and to be treated as an equal (And not like you’re talking to a baby, he is a young man!)
But what I sensed the most, was a deep need to be acknowledged as a perfectly capable individual who can express exactly what he wants and desires. If only people could slow down this ridiculously fast-paced world we live in and give others like my friend a chance so they can too feel they belong and create meaningful relationships with others.
By the end of four or five rounds around the room, I was completely out of breath but Justin didn’t want to stop. He could have go on like that forever. We stopped for a little bit and we limed together. We talked about his favorite foods, friends and activities. What a cool guy to hang out with, full of energy and a great sense of humour.
When it was time to do crafts, I saw all the energy he put into grabbing a crayon to start coloring. He was so patient with himself and kept that smile throughout the activity despite the difficulty of the task. I was extremely impressed and proud at how he chooses to face the challenges he was born with. He does it with resilience, determination and with a positive attitude.
I also met wonderful Sonya* a 14 year old girl who will be writing SEA this year. She never had the chance to go to a regular school even though she doesn’t have any intellectual challenges. But due to her physical related-issues, schools were not welcoming or accepting of her condition so she had to be home-schooled. She dreams of passing the SEA exam and go to a regular secondary school very soon. Like the rest of the children I met yesterday, Sonya was very welcoming and she hopes she can get to interact with children of her own age in the new school.
I also made a new friend with Down syndrome. It took a long time to figure out her name because when I asked, she was very shy about it, looked down and smiled non-stop. She has quite a few friends and is very good at coloring and making others happy. She is gentle, warm and at the same time quite mischievous. So don’t let that sweet smile fool you. Watch out! *laugh*
I made a lot of new friends yesterday and I cannot write about all of them because words aren’t enough to express how humbled, grateful and happy I felt when I spent time with them.
But nothing prepared me when I met Steve*. He is a super shy, sweet young man who is 15 years old. He has some intellectual challenges. He told me that he is an artist and proved it to me by painting this Easter egg that I will treasure forever. At the back, he even gave me his autograph like most artists would with their craft.
I sat down next to him and asked him what is it that he wants to do when he grows up. He thought for a few seconds, looked down and very shyly said:
“I want to be a driver…” and smiled.
I said: “That’s great I am sure you will be an amazing driver.”
He nodded in agreement, smiled and then became serious when he said:
“But what I want the most is to make my mom proud… ”
His answer left me speechless. It took me by surprise. I thought of my boys and how hard they try to do things that most people take for granted. Here I was, sitting next to such a pure-hearted young man who isn’t thinking about himself but his only wish is to make his mother happy and proud despite the serious challenges he faces and the hard work that it will take for him to achieve it.
I looked at him with a smile and said: “I am sure your mom is already proud of you, you’re an amazing guy”. He looked down, shyly smiled at me and continued coloring my Easter egg.
When was time to leave, I saw him across the room while he was getting ready to eat lunch. I shouted across the room: “Hey Steve, I am going. Take care!” while I waved goodbye.
It looked like he was taken by surprise when he realized that I remembered his name. How could I not remember it? He waved back goodbye with a smile.
I stepped back into this fast-pacing world; one that I wish could be more like the other. Slowly-paced… so we can get the chance to do what humans should do, caring for one another. Looking at each other’s eyes, being genuinely interested in their welfare.
A world where selfishness doesn’t have time or space. A world where people interact with others for what they are in the inside and not in the outside…
A world where people like my friends have EQUAL rights to public education and public health services…
A world where we teach our children to respect, love and accept everyone… and not just the people that look and act like them…
A world where we don’t whisper when we see someone who might be deemed as different… a world where we don’t laugh or mock them…
A world where we treat differently-abled individuals in the way they should be treated, with dignity. Not with sympathy, not as a charity project…
A world where people like my friend Steve can actually get the opportunity to have a job and make his mama proud…
*Not their real names.