The memory haunts me. I was 12, an ungainly adolescent, when I volunteered to be a Peer Helper. The guidance counselor asked me to tutor a girl named Megan who was hearing impaired and had special needs. I was eager to help, but sorely unprepared. There wasn’t an inclusion program at our middle school, and I didn’t receive training in sign language or other ways to talk to Megan, having been told that she would read my lips. When we met during lunch, we struggled to communicate. Minutes passed in silence. The counselor didn’t check on our progress often and I was too shy to ask for help.
When I got the invitation for Megan’s birthday party, I was already anxious about our tutoring sessions, even about seeing her at all. The idea of going to her party, of sitting through silence or one-sided conversation, filled me with panic. It had nothing to do with popularity. I was at a loss as to how to connect with Megan. I didn’t know what her hobbies were, or her talents. I knew nothing about her aside from what her special needs were. If only I’d gotten to know her as an individual, everything about our relationship might have changed.
The day of the party, I dropped off a present at Megan’s house. Her mother listened to my shame-filled apology about not being able to stay. I’ve never forgotten the look on her mother’s face — one of heartbreak, frustration, pleading — when she responded with, “No one is coming to the party.”
At that moment, bravery should’ve taken my feet through the door. I should have swallowed my uncertainties, my awkwardness, and gone to Megan’s party. I wasn’t brave. I was a coward in one of life’s defining moments.
Nearly 30 years later, I haven’t forgiven myself for that cruelty. That memory sits stony in my soul, so much so that I wrote a version of it into a novel as a plea to readers to be braver, stronger and kinder than my younger self. Now that I have children, I wonder: How can I instill in them the moral bravery that I lacked? How can I teach them to rise up in those defining moments? They spend time with children with special needs through inclusion at school, but that isn’t enough. Contact and communication must extend beyond classrooms to foster understanding and genuine, long-lasting connections and friendships.
As a novelist and a mother, I often think of reading and books as one way to get to teach children about morality, bravery and other important issues. Books that illuminate the talents of people with special needs or physical disabilities are indispensable tools for showing that differences of any kind are something to celebrate and value. More importantly, readers with special needs or physical challenges want, and should be able, to recognize themselves in books.
Here are a few of my suggestions:
In “I Am In Here,” Elizabeth M. Bonker, a young woman with autism, reminds us in her poem, “Me,” that, though she can’t speak, she longs to be heard.
“A Boy and a Jaguar” by Alan Rabinowitz, illustrated by Catia Chien, beautifully portrays how Rabinowitz overcame his struggles with stuttering to become a wildlife conservationist.
Unforgettable books like these provide all readers with a “rehearsal” for face-to-face interactions. It’s my job as a parent to seek them out for reading and discussion with my children. Beyond books, having my children interact regularly with people with special needs helps them develop familiarity, and more importantly, mutual respect. Dispelling misconceptions and stereotypes happens through contact.
As a senior in high school, I tutored Troy Drake, a 3-year-old with Down Syndrome. Our experience was drastically different from the one I shared with Megan. I was more mature, less timid and better able to navigate our communication. Troy gave me insight into his capabilities, but more importantly, into his wonderful, charming personality. While I was researching Down Syndrome for my novel, I interviewed Troy’s mother, Suzanne, and learned that Troy, now grown, has a woodworking business on Etsy, Doodle Duck Design.
“It was my responsibility to help my son achieve a life of purpose,” she said, “working at a job he enjoyed and that celebrated his strengths and talents. When I couldn’t find employment in our town that fit his needs, I started Doodle Duck Design.” The company employs people with special needs alongside other employees, providing a model for an integrated workplace to benefit everyone.
Every moment we share books, music, conversation, or meals with people who might not be completely like us, is one moment more that we benefit and grow as human beings, that we recognize the beauty, fluidity, and worth of our differences. And the more we do this as adults, the more our children recognize how to interact, how to have empathy. We all have moments when we are less than kind, less than tolerant, less than the people we strive to be. With exposure, contact, and education, I hope my children grow up to have fewer of them. Maybe they’ll walk through that door, and maybe they’ll go to that party.
Suzanne Nelson is the author of “Serendipity’s Footsteps,” “Cake Pop Crush” and many other novels for middle grade and young adult readers. A former editor, Suzanne worked for Scholastic, Penguin Books for Young Readers and Holiday House. She tweets @snelsonbooks.
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