“Can I help you with something?”
I wouldn’t have said anything, but I spotted your friend pulling a face before you whipped around to stare at my son for the second time. The tone of my voice was far more reasoned than if you had not been a child. Had you not been a child you may have heard the anger in my heart.
But you were only about 12, if that. It really was all I could do to smile, but I didn’t want to frighten you. I wanted to educate you.
Pretty sure I failed.
You nervously shook your head, your eyes wide open, realizing you’d been caught out.
“Is there a reason why you’re staring?” says I. Same tone. Same smile.
Same response. Then you turned back around and finished your lunch, the table quieter around you now. No more faces, no more words, no questions, no head shaking, nothing. Maybe it surprised you that another demographic who’s perennially jeered was standing up to you. This redheaded mom and her boy with Down syndrome. No, honey. We don’t just take it, we address it. So sorry to burst your bully bubble.
I looked down at Rukai. My sweet, innocent little boy, just having something to eat on a sunny summer afternoon. And you had to go and bring in those clouds.
I look at him and see only a child; one who is loved by everyone who has the fortune to spend any time with him. A child with quirks, with needs, with emotions (yes, some being anger and frustration). With hopes and disappointments just like any other kid. But you, and so many others like you choose only to see (worse, to define him with) a genetic condition which only makes him learn a bit slower.
This happened a few weeks ago but is still very much on my mind today. I wonder where you go to school. I wonder who your classmates are. Do you have any kids with special needs in your class? In your school? Anywhere you’ve ever been? Your reaction tells me not many, if at all. What a shame. What a loss. What a missed opportunity.
And here you’ve been on earth a fair few years. Here you should have had many a chance ― like Rukai’s preschool friends have had ― to interact with a child who learns differently, who moves differently, who acts differently. To engage with him and only know him as Rukai. Because he is Rukai. He is not someone for people to toy with. He is a human being and he has a name. He is Rukai.
I wish you would have replied when I asked you those questions, I really do. I wish you would have actually wanted to know, to understand. But your fear and your reluctance told me otherwise and really made me sad. Because that fear and reluctance would not have existed had you not been mocking him. I know this because there have been so many other kids your age who’ve approached him, waved and smiled, fist bumped, high-fived, you name it. Those kids get it.
Because those kids are not being ripped off by society ― those kids are lucky to have inclusion as standard, in their schools, in their clubs, in their neighborhoods, maybe even in their families. They know kids like Rukai because they have been allowed to know kids like Rukai.
And although many in this very strange and skewed world would look at us and feel pity ― they of the downward-angled smiles and furrowed brows which say more than their words could possibly define - it is you for whom I feel pity. You are being denied by society the most beautiful of freedoms which is to live and let live. Get to know one another. Share ideas. Share joy. Share love. Grow.
You whipped your head around to stare and as I was reacting I thought of all those who haven’t. The restaurant server who brought Rukai an early bowl of chips before a late meal because she didn’t want him to be hungry much longer. The retired doctor who stopped for a high five as we were checking out of a hotel, then offered to return our luggage cart so we could be on our way quicker. The little girl your age who stopped to play with him in the sand pit, returning later to introduce him to her friends. The dozens of people in dozens of other restaurants on dozens of other days saying hello, smiling, enjoying his very existence.
I chose to remember them.
I once thought reactions like yours would be in the majority. Ah, but they aren’t. And this gives me hope that maybe ― just maybe ― all the advocacy out in the world is starting to chip away. It’s like digging the Channel Tunnel with a teaspoon but we keep on digging. With bloodied knuckles and throats ragged from the constant dust, we keep on digging.
I am so sorry you haven’t been given what those other folks have. I hope as you get older you don’t continue to be stripped of that opportunity and instead you are allowed to live in the world as it is, rather than the world as it is imagined. Because that ableist, virtual reality where people with disabilities are locked away as something to hide, as someone to fear, is not Truth.
We don’t hide around here. And we are certainly not afraid.
I hope that one day inclusion becomes more than a catch phrase.
I hope that one day disabled people no longer have to scratch and claw for equal opportunities to access education. To access all of life, not merely what they are allowed to access by those who choose to live in darkness and pretend we are not a society of mixed ability on every level.
I hope that one day you tell your friend to stop pulling faces. Tell him that we are all different and that bullying is evidence of a dark heart. I hope that you don’t whip your head around to stare but you turn around to smile.
And when someone asks if they can help you with something, I hope you say “Yes. Educate me.”