Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Invisibility Factor

The other day, my neighbor relayed to me an encounter Jake had with a Mom in his school. Apparently he was very excited about the upcoming school fair, and had bounded out of the library and struck up conversation with the woman, who was waiting in the hall for her child.

"Are you going to the fair? It's going to be so much fun!" he babbled expectantly.

She looked at him, then turned and walked away. Since Jake doesn't interpret non verbal information as well as most people do, he didn't perceive this as a slight. He followed her.

"It's going to be great. I'm going with my Mom!" She whipped around so quickly her hair flew.

"Won't that be NICE" she snapped sarcastically, before turning on her heel and marching away. Fortunately, Jake also didn't quite perceive that as a slight either. He did say later that he thought she was a little rude, but just shrugged and went on his way.

My neighbor, on the other hand, was incensed. She quietly approached the woman and struck up a conversation.
"Oh I see that you were talking to Jake", she smiled.
"Oh is THAT his name?" the Mom rolls her eyes and remarks, " I can't stand that kid, he is SO damn annoying."
"Actually," Marnie, who looks like she wouldn't hurt a flea, draws herself up to her full height. "He is my neighbor." Her blue eyes narrow and she pauses for emphasis. "And he is not annoying, but very curious and intelligent. He is also learning disabled."

Marnie never did tell me what the other parent's response was, and I don't really need to know. It is enough to know that she was willing to defend my child in the wake of ignorance, which warms my heart.

I have often pondered what it would be like if Jake had a visible disability. If he were in a wheelchair, or had specific facial features, would he be judged so harshly? I already know the answer. Having been a special ed paraprofessional for the last 14 years, I have seen how the children with invisible disabilities are often judged by the ignorant, and it is sad. Just because their disability isn't as prominently displayed, they are thought of as less intelligent, poorly behaved children. The parents are sometimes seen as hysterical, overbearing, and...crazy, by schools, their own families, and the community in general. Having a child with disabilities, visible or not, can be isolating and heartbreaking. As a parent, you expect the kids at school to be mean. We've all been there, we know how cruel kids can be. However the cruelty of the adults is hard to swallow. Sometimes though your kids can surprise you.

Last year we went to a computer store, where Jake was buying some computer parts. He poured the contents of his piggy bank on the counter and the clerk , thinking she was being helpful, demanded that he count out how much he needed. Little did she know, he has a math learning disability. He can't count by 5s. So for him, counting a pile of nickles was equivalent to asking me to do my taxes. He was valiant in his attempt, but obviously couldn't do it.

"You need to practice your counting, a big boy like you should be able to do this." the clerk commented. Jake looked at her with determination and announced, "I know. I'm learning disabled in math and counting money is really hard for me." Then he collected his purchase and walked away. The clerk was left there with her mouth hanging open, her shame clearly visible on her face. She immediately realized her faux pas, and tripped over herself to apologize.

I was so proud of my son that day. Firstly to even attempt counting the coins was a feat, because having experienced failure so often had made him unwilling to even attempt the smallest challenge. Then to announce that he has a learning disability-without shame or hesitation, just to state it as fact was a huge step. He has seen his father change from someone who would hide the fact that he is dyslexic to an outspoken advocate whose audience has no doubt of his intelligence. Previously people had assumed that Hubs was unintelligent because reading and writing where laborious, so Hubs would avoid situations where his dyslexia would show.

As a family we seize those moments of ignorance and look at them as 'teachable moments', not just for Jake, but for the ignorant person involved. Yes, we're different. Our world is a little more upside down and backwards then average family. However, in a lot of ways, I pity the person who is so narrow minded that they judge a person, especially a child, based on such strict criteria. For them, being different may be a bad thing, but what they don't realize is that by closing their minds to other possibilities, they are missing out on the moments of pure beauty that I bear witness to every day.

Eccentric? Yes. A little weird? At times. Different? Definitely. Personally, I wouldn't have it any other way.

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