Special or Special Needs?
Since the age of 2, Harlie's best friend has been Lilly. The day they met, they had an instant connection. Lilly didn't realise there was anything different about Harlie, she was just another little girl who shared the same passion for Peppa Pig.
It wasn't until Lilly wanted Harlie to follow her to another room that she became confused when Harlie didn't come. After their visit, Lilly was asking her mum why Harlie couldn't walk. Her mother told her that it is because Harlie's legs don't work yet. They need to get stronger. Months went by until the next time Harlie and Lilly had a play date and on the way, Lilly told her mum that she would help Harlie get better. "I want to fix her legs." She said. Her innocent intentions brought a tear to my eye.
Before long, the two girls were inseparable and Lilly didn't need to understand why Harlie couldn't walk, instead she simply enjoyed her company and quickly learned how to help Harlie. Without question, Lilly would bring the toys and games to Harlie knowing that was what she needed.
I didn't realise how much I took Lilly's understanding for granted. When Harlie got her wheelchair at the age of 4, the stares began. Everywhere we went in public, adults and children would stare. What was most interesting was that more often than not, it was the children who asked questions. Some would ask their parents, others would ask me. Some parents would pull their children away or tell them to not look. At first, I thought that was best since I didn't like people staring at Harlie, but then it hit me; if they don't ask, they will never know. That conversation might never happen in their family and those children will not know how to react when they see a child in a wheelchair.
One afternoon doing the groceries with Harlie, a young boy approached me and asked, "Why is she in a wheelchair?" As I was explaining as best I could, his mother ran over apologising to me for the intrusion. I told her it was perfectly fine and I would rather he asked. She seemed shocked at the concept. The young boy then put his hand on Harlie's shoulder, smiled and wished her luck. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. I felt hopeful that because of this encounter, it may open a conversation with that family. The boy might be able to better understand that children in wheelchairs aren't necessarily "special", they just require special care. They still need strangers to smile at them, say hello, and more importantly accept them as any other child.
What I love about Lilly and Harlie's friendship is that Lilly doesn't see Harlie as any different from any of her other friends. She just has special needs. Harlie still wants the same things in life as Lilly, she still wants to play, talk, laugh. She still enjoys going to the movies or having sleepovers. Harlie is just a 7 year old girl.
If every family could speak openly about special needs with each other and if parents can teach their children that it's OK to ask questions, but more importantly, to include. Include special needs children in whatever way they can and realise they want more than anything to just be a kid. Standing out can be great sometimes, not so much others. Fitting in and being accepted can mean the world. Will you start the conversation with your children? Next time you see someone "different" will you chose to ignore them, or offer a friendly smile, a wave or a conversation? Share your thoughts and stories with us.