I always sit up and pay attention when disability issues appear in mainstream media. That was the case when I saw a personal essay in The Globe and Mail written by the mother of Ges, a Grade 4 boy with an unnamed disability. The story was entitled “What I’ve learned about the compassion of children.”
The mother, Carmen Farrell, describes Ges as a disarmingly beautiful boy who has involuntary movements, wandering eyes and difficulty interacting with his peers. At first, she sounds skeptical, even cynical, about stories about disabled children:
Most stories about children with special needs are about that child. They follow a pattern – a parent’s realization that something is “different.” The agony, a period of grieving, then acceptance of the need to get on with the job and find a meaningful path for their child and themselves. These uplifting stories resolve into some description of an improvement for the family.
But this is not that kind of story. It is, she says, not about her son. It is about his Grade 4 classmates who volunteer in droves to create a circle of friends for Ges. They adapt schoolyard games so that he can participate, they keep inviting Ges to play even in the face of his repeated refusals and they persevere in attempts to engage him. It is a charming and heart-warming story.
These kids really reached out. They did the unexpected and the unusual. I wonder if my daughter’s Grade 4 friends would go this far without parental involvement. They will say “Hi” to Deane, but, understandably, are unsure where to go after that. And while playing with his sister’s friends would be great, what Deane really wants is to hanging with friends his age. That is the key to this story: it is Ges’s classmates who are including him.
A group of peers is what all of us want for our children. This is especially true for disabled children. It is hard for them to develop friendships outside of school. There are the practicalities of transportation – being bused eliminates the possibility of activities after school and going to a friend’s house usually involves an adult with a car. There are also issues of communication and physical access.
Our children – often by necessity – spend a lot of time with adults. Every year, Deane’s teachers list improving interaction with peers rather than adults as one of his goals. That Ges’s classmates took it upon themselves – with minimal adult prompting – to figure out how to include him is what makes it truly remarkable. This is what all parents of disabled children dream of.
The author concludes that these kids, by being friends with Ges, learn first-hand that people who are different are not scary or weird. Through the process of including Ges, they get a glimpse into the challenges some children face and how it is possible to reduce – or eliminate – those problems. I can’t think of a better education about inclusion.
Despite her cynicism about disability stories, Ms. Farrell’s story has a Disney-esque theme to it in which the hero, who has been shunned, is finally accepted by others who realize he/she is a kind and wonderful person after all.
Maybe we could all use a little more Disney in our lives.