Wednesday, February 5, 2020

More in Common than Different. Always.

She was the smartest little kindergartener (Literally. They bumped her straight to second grade following that year.) and with her blond hair sticking up all over her little head, Syd was the cutest little thing. She bounced into the classroom so eager to tell my five-year-olds that she had made a plan. She told her parents she wanted Benjamin, Mason, and Claire to come to her house for a party! Her enthusiasm was contagious. And as I watched the interaction my own spirit soared that she included the boys. Benjamin was in the early weeks of using his first power wheelchair and I had no idea what the other children in his kindergarten classroom thought about it -- or him. This little spirited blond was giving me hope.

"And I know we live on the third floor in our building," she continued, "But I have told my Daddy to build us a ramp!!"

I still find it hard to explain the disappointment that washed over me, coupled with hope and absolute love for this child who saw the problem, recognized it, and wanted to fix it.

Inclusion is defined as "the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure."

According to a website called Disability Scoop, nearly 95 percent of children with disabilities spent at least part of their day in a regular classroom last year. Technically classified by the public school system as having "orthopedic/motor disability" meant that Benjamin and Mason spent their entire school day within the regular classroom. Full inclusion if you will.

And yet.

Including Benjamin and Mason was easy when reading was involved. They could participate exactly like their peers. Throw in some math, and early on both my boys excelled in mental math and inclusion felt strong. We hit a wall when math began to require some writing -- long division, large multiplication, etc -- and then there was science. A science teacher told me once that Benjamin was fine watching the other kids do the hands-on experiments. Her words did not equate to his feelings. Nor did they equate with inclusion.

But the real test of inclusion -- the one that mattered to my two sons -- was the playground. Always the playground. What does recess look like for children with physical impairments?

Lonely. It looks lonely.

Benjamin and Mason had friends. But on the playground, young people like to run, play tag, catch balls. Benjamin could turn his chair to full speed and keep up with the running but catching a ball was not something he would ever learn to do. Mason could catch the ball, but running to keep up was not something his legs could achieve.

Early on, I went to school and led games for the kindergarteners, games that included my boys. When that stopped being cool (not even sure my coolness quotient lasted through kindergarten), we talked through playground plans. We brainstormed, we looked for ways to include and to be included.

Some kids are just really good at making space for friends.

Some just have no idea how.

Somewhere around 7 million school age children have a disability according to the National Center for Education Statistics in the US alone. Seven million sounds like a lot to me but Benjamin was the only guy in his class rolling around the playground.

His best friend in 5th grade was a young man with a huge heart. Benjamin loved rolling around wherever Ty went. But Ty also had another friend. And maybe this little boy just didn't like to share. Maybe he just didn't like Benjamin. Regardless, he began to convince Ty to do things at recess that could absolutely NOT include Benjamin.

For his part, Benjamin persisted. He worked to just be a good friend. He didn't complain or beg, he just accepted the time Ty did give him.

For my part, I had a conversation with the other little boy's mom. I asked her to encourage including Benjamin. She didn't fully shrug her shoulders in front of me, but the message was clear that she didn't see the problem. I may have had unkind thoughts toward both boy and mom....

All these years later, the sense of frustration that I couldn't teach this child to see how fabulous having Benjamin a part of the friendship could be, still makes tears roll down my cheeks.

Later this month, Benjamin and I will begin taking the little book "Helix Rolls Into A Sleepover" around to schools, libraries, hospital lobbies -- basically anywhere someone will let us read. We will share the story of the little tortoise on wheels in the hopes that by presenting a cool character, with super cool wheels, we can show that finding what we have in common is far easier than not.

We will share our stories. And we will share Helix story. And we will hope that the ripple effect will be strong in our little corner of the world. We will hope that children who hear about Helix will be encouraged to open their eyes and look for all the things -- video games, movies, soccer, etc -- that Helix has in common with his friends EVEN THOUGH he rolls through life. And we will hope that our stories and the cutest little tortoise will build ramps (like sweet little Syd wanted to do way back in kindergarten) and make inclusion the norm.

** Feel free to let us know if you want us to bring Helix to your corner of the world! And please please make sure you order here to get your copy for the February 12 release date!!!

Carol - The Blessings Counter