It all began with a book. Just a normal little girl who had chosen this particular story for her book report. She had seen Elizabeth in the hallways of school but it wasn’t until she had read the book that she really wanted to know more about Elizabeth.
I made the decision very early on that Elizabeth was going to be mainstreamed into public school. My social butterfly needed someone other than just me to hang out with. There are 2 types of special needs classroom, one is a 6-1 ratio for those that need more attention, such as Elizabeth and the second is a 10-1 for the higher functioning kids. The kids are rarely out of their classrooms, not giving them or the other students an opportunity to interact so of course those that are not familiar with the everyday life of a special needs classmate would want to know more. This statement could not be farther from the truth! I have spent years behind Elizabeth’s wheelchair walking the halls of schools for 7 years now and I can count on one hand how many times someone has acknowledged Elizabeth.
It’s not normal ~ She’s different ~ I don’t know what to say, how to act
It’s perfectly normal for anyone to have these thoughts and feelings towards a situation or someone that is different than they are. It takes courage, it takes faith, it takes someone special, someone ….
This new friendship that had found Elizabeth became so much more than just a graded book report or the curiosity satisfied of one little girl in the classroom next door. She became Elizabeth’s best friend, her life line to a world outside of a 6-1 classroom, she became the difference when being different just wasn’t the in thing.
The first time I was invited to speak to a group of students about Elizabeth I wasn’t sure if I should have the same approach that I use to speak to a crowded room of politicians, business men and women in power suits or the group of church ladies. Those speeches include medical terms, talk of legislation that sits in committee that would allow a better quality of life for these kids, insurance policies and how hard it is to juggle home and work with a child with high needs.
This one hash tag became the foundation for change. It wouldn’t be easy, after all teenagers today don’t want to be different. It’s certainly not considered cool and it surely isn’t going to soar your popularity status. In fact, you will be judged, harshly might I add for befriending the different, the left out and sometimes made fun of. What will your friends say when you are eating lunch with the girl in the wheelchair or hanging out at the football game with the boy who has Downs Syndrome, who talks a little slower and walks a little different? Will you give up your Friday night to pick up someone who just wants to be like everyone else and hang out until curfew, riding around in the car and stopping at the cool places? If not, why not?
Why not be the difference in someone’s life? And not just anyone, but someone you see everyday in your hallways, someone in your cafeteria, in your parking lot or on your bus? These kids want to be just like you. They want to have friends and play football and cheer for their hometown team. They know, they DO know that they are different; that they are left out more than accepted. And while you may think that they have no idea that there is life going on around them, please let me say they know and it just takes one, ONE person to be the difference.
When I hear someone say that Elizabeth won’t know the difference, she is happier to just be left at home or that it’s just too difficult to include her I can’t help but think this is why our kids today shy away from what’s different, that they have not been encouraged or empowered to embrace what’s different. We have to look past the disability, past the wheelchairs and stumbled walk and jumbled words and look at the person behind that … you would be surprised how quickly their disability disappears when you do.