Just Like You

NJSTORY

Photo credit: nj.com

Liam is a 4 year old little boy who wanted to have his birthday party at a gymnastics studio in New Jersey. When his mom went to sign the contract, she noticed that there’s a “Special Needs clause.”

It reads: “Special Needs children: Please indicate if your child or any children attending the party have any mental or physical disabilties/special needs. (Surgent’s Elite is not certified in special needs instruction and reserves the right to deny party and gymnastics instruction.)”

Liam’s mom asked about the clause, while mentioning that her son has Down syndrome. Consequently, the gym turned her away.

This didn’t happen in 1954. This didn’t happen in 1994. This didn’t happen in 2004.

This happened YESTERDAY.

You can read about the story here:

http://www.nj.com/union/index.ssf/2014/10/cranford_mom_of_boy_4_with_down_syndrome_denied_birthday_party_at_surgents_elite_gymnastics.html

And you can read the contract here:

http://surgentselitegym.com/pub/docs/Forms/h_Parties/PartyContract.pdf

(***Update: The contract appears to have been taken down. However, you can see it if you click on the link to the story and scroll to the second image:

http://www.nj.com/union/index.ssf/2014/10/cranford_mom_of_boy_4_with_down_syndrome_denied_birthday_party_at_surgents_elite_gymnastics.html)

I’ve been upset about this since it happened. I assumed that this was a misunderstanding. And then, when I realized that it WASN’T a misunderstanding, I figured that the gym would quickly apologize and give Liam a free party. On the contrary, they doubled-down on their decision.

Their policy is that no children with special needs are allowed at this gym. Not for parties. And not for classes. Again, this happened YESTERDAY — not 50 years ago.

What the owner of this gym doesn’t understand is that Liam is just like every other child. I don’t even know him, but I know he laughs, cries, likes to have fun, and loves birthday parties — especially his own. How do I know this? Because he’s just like me. He’s just like you too.

People with special needs are human! They’re not meant to be segregated by our society. They’re not meant to be excluded from activities. They’re not meant to be pointed out and sent packing.

Imagine if this was you. Imagine if you wanted to have a birthday party at a particular place and the owner said, “You’re not allowed here.” Imagine how that would feel.

Or imagine if you were a guest at a birthday party, and you showed up in your best outfit, only to be turned away at the door. “Didn’t you see our clause? You’re not allowed here.”

Now imagine that this wasn’t you…but that this was your child. Your child showed up for a birthday party and was turned away at the door.

Just imagine that tear-streaked face. “Why don’t they want me here?”

Imagine telling your child why he or she is not allowed at this birthday party.

“It’s because you’re different, honey…”

“I am? How?”

People have left comments on the news story supporting the gym. They say things like, “Well, what about medical issues? I can see where the gym is coming from…”

So where does it stop? Pretty soon, people with special needs and/or medical issues can’t go to gyms, can’t go to parties, can’t go to parks, can’t go to malls, can’t ride in cars…

Everything is a liability, right?

I have a better idea. How about we treat people with special needs as if they’re just like us. We’re allowed to go to gyms, parties, parks, malls… We’re allowed to experience all aspects of life. That’s called being human. Everyone is afforded the same rights.

I know that my daughter loves birthday parties. LOVES THEM. I’m imagining her getting all ready for a party, cheering in the car when we drive up, and then getting banished at the door because “Didn’t you see our Special Needs clause?”

I’m imagining her turning towards me with that tear-streaked face and saying, “Why?”

And what would I tell her? That people with special needs aren’t allowed to go to birthday parties? Really??

I can’t do it. I can’t tell her that. She deserves MUCH, MUCH, MUCH better than that. She’s an incredible kid.

And if you met her, you would see that she’s just like me — and just like you too.

The Kindness of Others

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Yesterday, as Emmy was working her way down the steps at school, a parent held out her hand.

“Want some help?”

Emmy gladly accepted the hand, and the two of them walked slowly down the steps together. I don’t know this woman. I’ve seen her around, but we hadn’t officially met until yesterday. Yet she saw that Emmy was a bit slower on the steps, and she was eager to extend a hand.

And when I came to pick up Emmy at school the other day, a little girl saw me and said, “Emmy, your mom is here!” But she didn’t stop there. She put a hand on Emmy’s back and gently guided her through the sea of children. This little girl of about four years old led my daughter to me.

Because my daughter has special needs, I see something that others may not see. I see people who show a level of kindness that goes above and beyond what is expected.

Sure, we all say “hi” to each other as we go about the hustle-and-bustle of our daily lives. We offer a quick smile or a wave. We hold the door for each other. We say “Excuse me” and “Oops. I’m sorry.” We’re in our own little worlds. It’s how we live, and it’s what we’re used to.

But now I also see the people who drop everything to help someone with special needs. When that happens, there’s an incredible kindness that comes through. And there’s a softening. Our crisp, sharp world becomes fuzzy around the edges.

As I stood waiting for Emmy to work her way down the steps holding a woman’s hand…

And as I stood waiting for a little girl to guide her though the crowd…

Time stood still. Everything became softer. 

I wonder about people like this. Where does this kindness come from? Do they have a sibling with special needs? Do they work with people who have special needs? Did their parents teach them to be kind to people with special needs? Or are they just born this way?

Before Emmy was diagnosed, I didn’t have this trait. Of course, I was perfectly pleasant towards people with special needs. It’s not like I was cruel or anything. But I didn’t have the stop-everything-and-help trait. I didn’t know anyone with special needs and, actually, I didn’t think much about it. I was very much in my own little world.

I’d say most people are just like I was. They offer Emmy a quick smile. Or they might look quizzically at her, perhaps thinking, “What’s wrong?” Or they don’t even notice her at all.

But then there are these people who stop EVERYTHING and extend a hand. This woman’s own daughter was at the bottom of the stairs already. She could have easily raced down the stairs, offered me a brisk “Hello,” and marched towards her car — already thinking about what to make for dinner. I wouldn’t have faulted her a bit. It’s what everyone does. Hey, I’m busy too, so I get it!

But, rather, she stopped. And she extended a hand.

When I see the kindness come through in children is when it really gets me choked up. When I see kids holding Emmy’s hand to help her along. Or when I see kids try and pick her up to help put her on a tricycle. Or even when kids stop to say, “Hi Emmy!” Those things make her day. And they make mine too. It makes me feel like we’re going positive places in this world. I applaud the parents who are able to teach this kindness to their children. I think it will make them better people, for sure.

I already see how Charlotte has blossomed because of her sister. She is so kind and so helpful. When she takes Emmy’s hand, that softness happens. Just writing about it, I can actually feel it.

People with special needs deserve this kindness. They don’t deserve hurtful words and teasing. I see how Emmy has completely changed my life. Her incredible spirit has softened me. And she has shown me how to really stop and see these little moments of softness in an otherwise fast-paced world.

What About Me

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I’ve been waiting for this day. Although I certainly haven’t been looking forward to it.

We got our first “What about me?” And it made me feel AWFUL!

Ever since we found out that Emmy has Williams syndrome, I was conscious of how it would impact Charlotte. In the beginning, Charlotte had no idea that there was anything different about Emmy. But, as time has gone by, we’ve had conversations about heart surgery and Williams syndrome and how things are more challenging for Emmy.

Charlotte clearly doesn’t notice any differences yet with Emmy. She’s just her sister. Period — end of story. But now she’s started to take notice of all the special treatment Emmy gets. The additional doctors’ visits, the therapy sessions at school; the meetings with therapists at home.

One wouldn’t think that she would be envious of doctors’ visits, but she is! Charlotte actually loves going to the doctor and dentist. (I’m sure Emmy would gladly trade places in that respect because all hell breaks loose when Emmy senses that she’s going to get poked and prodded by someone.)

And Charlotte is envious of the therapy sessions because they look like fun! Emmy is spending time with really nice therapists who play games with her and cheer her on. What’s not to like?

Well, all the special treatment has started to add up, and it came to a head yesterday when we had an Early Intervention meeting with Emmy’s team of therapists to discuss her goals. Charlotte was supposed to be at school, but it was cancelled. So she got to watch everyone fuss over Emmy some more…and it wasn’t fun for her. She wanted to be fussed over. And in her effort to get attention, she jumped on the couch and tried to get somebody — anybody — to focus on her. Of course, this resulted in a lot of wild bouncing around, and it was hard for me to try and hear what the therapists were saying. It was difficult to manage the situation, but I tried not to get frustrated with her. I know what she wants because I would’ve wanted the exact same thing when I was her age.

The thing is that I’ve been trying so hard to over-compensate for Emmy’s special attention. I wanted to head this off before it started. I didn’t want Charlotte to ever feel ignored. So my husband and I both take her for one-on-one time every weekend. We also signed her up for soccer, gymnastics, and swimming, and we try and make a big deal over all her various activities. My husband even coached the soccer team! I take her for mani/pedis. I read to her. I snuggle with her. I do arts and crafts with her — just the two of us! I try everything in my power to make her feel like she’s special too!

But yesterday when all the therapists left, her face fell, and she said, “What about me?”

She wanted to know, “Why doesn’t anyone get together to talk about me?”

And she’s right. All the outside activities that I do with her don’t compare to the fact that a bunch of people sit in a room and talk about Emmy for an hour. How can I possibly recreate that situation for Charlotte? I don’t know…

I told her that I talk about her and how awesome she’s doing with her teachers all the time, but that’s not the same…

The thing about Charlotte is that we don’t have to sit in a room and talk about how to get her to open a Ziploc bag, or climb the stairs, or keep her balance. She does all of those things beautifully. They’ve never been a struggle for her. Every single goal we set for Emmy yesterday are things that Charlotte has already met. And they all came easily to her. I don’t think I ever had to teach her how to use a fork and spoon. She just did it.

And I’m so conscious of the fact that she is very sharp. This morning, Charlotte was playing with her dolls, and I heard her doing math very quickly! She was saying, “What’s five plus three? Eight! What’s two plus seven? Nine!” I mean, she was QUICK. I was really impressed. And I told her so right away! She’s also really good at gymnastics — very strong and fearless. I watch every gymnastics’ practice. I take videos of her hanging on the uneven bars and send them around to family members. I celebrate her artistic talent and hang up her paintings.

But kudos from mom doesn’t compare to a bunch of people sitting in a room and reviewing her accomplishments for an hour.

So with all of my attention and praise, I don’t know how to recreate that aspect — that type of special treatment that doesn’t apply to typical children. The therapy sessions, the doctors’ visits, and the goal-based meetings. How does an arts and crafts session with mom compare to those things?

If anyone has suggestions, I am all ears! Maybe I can have relatives dress up as strangers and come over to discuss Charlotte’s progress. 😉 I’m picturing my mom with a funny hat on and a feathered mask over her eyes…yikes!

Or maybe the answer is just to keep stressing that things are harder for Emmy and, while these therapy sessions seem like special treatment, Emmy would rather not have to work harder than everyone else. That’s not an easy concept for a 4 year old to understand though. Especially because she notices how Emmy loves getting doted on by her therapists. It certainly doesn’t look like hard work to Charlotte!

I just want to do it right. Like every other mother out there, I have guilt up the wazoo — both for things that have and haven’t happened yet! (I love that I already have guilt for things that haven’t happened yet, by the way. So silly yet so true.) I want to get on the right path, but sometimes I don’t even know where to start.

Something to Watch this Weekend

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Photo credit: http://www.missyoucandoit.com

If you have HBO On Demand, do yourself a favor and watch a documentary that will capture your attention and melt your heart. If you click on HBO and go to “Documentaries” then “Feature Films,” you’ll find a movie called Miss You Can Do It.

You can watch the trailer here: Miss You Can Do It Trailer

I’m not usually into movies about pageants, and when my husband and I sat down to watch it, I thought, “I hope this isn’t too pageant-y…or too depressing…” Usually, when we do video date night (because you know we’re not going out to the movies), I try and find something funny and light-hearted.

So, for this one, I took a chance. And, yes, I bawled my eyes out–but in a good way! I highly recommend it, for parents of typical children and those with special needs.

I wish that I had been more interested in special needs before I had a child with special needs. Does that sound strange? I feel like I was incredibly closed off from that world, and now I realize that I could’ve gotten involved a long time ago.

If my daughter didn’t have special needs, would I have watched that awesome pageant documentary?

Or this one? Monica and David

Or this one? Best Kept Secret

I can tell you the answer. I probably wouldn’t have watched any of them. I don’t think that makes me a bad person. I think we’re drawn to what we know. And I didn’t know ANYTHING about special needs until July 2011, when Emmy was born.

I know that Oprah loves this quote by Maya Angelou: “When you know better, you do better.”

In my case, I think that it would be: When you know more, you do more.

I’ve stretched my boundaries because I had to. But I’m so glad that I had to because I never would’ve seen what was on the other side.

Over the past few years, I’ve met a fair amount of people who have dedicated themselves to special needs work without having a child, or sister, or brother with special needs. They just did. For various reasons, or perhaps for no reason at all, they wanted to help. I am always touched by those stories. I think I’ve asked almost all of our Early Intervention therapists, “So how did you get into this?” Where did that all start? One therapist told me that, as a teenager, she was helping a friend of the family with her autistic child. I can’t tell you how much that impacted me because I thought back to what I was doing as a teenager and, while I was a good girl :), I wasn’t involved in anything meaningful on that level. I didn’t stretch much out of my comfort zone. One of my goals is to open my children up to a world beyond what they can see. There are many people out there, each with his/her own story to tell. It makes me feel good to finally open my eyes to all of those stories, not just my own.

The Best Line of Poetry…Ever

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We went to a Williams Syndrome Conference over the weekend, and we had a fantastic time. (Thank you to everyone who organized it and to all of the speakers!) It’s bizarre how, after 2 years of completely immersing myself in “all that is WS,” I still have so much more to learn. I’ve certainly come a long way from the confused mom who received a diagnosis that she’d never heard of before, but there’s still a long way to go. We haven’t even had our first IEP meeting with the school system yet, and I’ve heard those can be a doozy!

My favorite session at the Conference was a panel of 4 adults (1 man + 3 women) who have Williams syndrome. I was so moved by what they had to say and, also, by how much they’re accomplishing in their lives. In the beginning, I worried that having WS would be so limiting for Emmy, but there are adults who live completely independently, hold down paying jobs that they enjoy, and drive cars. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about WS and its “limitations,” and it was inspiring to hear these adults focus on their many abilities, not their disability.

And then I heard something that floored me — the best line of poetry EVER.

One of the women was talking about her best friend of 14 years, who is “typical.”

What I learned early on is that people in the special needs community (and educators, therapists, etc.) don’t use the word “normal” to describe someone who doesn’t have special needs. Because: (1) The opposite of normal is “abnormal,” and it’s cruel to call someone “abnormal.” (2) What is normal anyway??? I mean, really. Can we even define that word? I certainly don’t think I’m normal…

If you use the word “typical” instead of “normal,” I promise that you will impress all your friends. 🙂

So this woman, who I immediately adored, was talking about her typical friend. And she said: “She sees me as she sees herself.”

I swear that is the most amazing line of poetry I’ve ever heard: “She sees me as she sees herself.”

And it got me thinking: What if we were to see other people as we see ourselves?

The dad rooting for his son even though he’s on the other team…

The cashier who is taking her time even though you want to get home…

The person who is fishing for his MetroCard before getting in the subway turnstile even though he’s holding up the whole line…

The person with special needs who wants to talk to you…

What if we see others as we see ourselves?

What if we were to approach each day looking at strangers and thinking: You know, we’re a lot more alike than we are different…

I’ll give it a go. Why not?

And I’ll close by saying that I am so touched by people who truly befriend those with special needs. It’s easy to judge someone who is different. It’s much more genuine and beautiful and human to connect with that person and find the ways in which you are more alike, than different.

I’m Counting on You

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One of the many, many things I love about Charlotte is how she drops phrases that I’m not expecting. I remember so clearly holding this little baby in my arms and wondering how she was going to act when she was older. I would try and picture her–in the future–sitting down to eat dinner with us or sharing details about her day, and I would come up blank. I wasn’t able to envision this baby any other way than snuggled up in my arms–sleeping, crying, or gazing curiously at her surroundings.

Well, at 3.5 years old, she has proven that she has a mighty personality. She’s independent, witty, observant, and has a sharp memory. She picks up on phrases from her teachers or from us, and she waits for the right time to use them.

Yesterday, I was driving her to school, and she mentioned that she wanted me to read a particular book for story time before bed. Still tired from waking up only an hour before, I said, “Ok, I’ll try and remember.”

She got very serious and replied, “I’m counting on you.”

I instantly perked up. She’s counting on me! I better deliver the goods.

I could picture her teachers using that same phrase, and I love that she tucks these words away and brings them out at the perfect time. She’s a little adult in many ways–an old soul.

Of course, as soon as I got home, I found the book and dutifully put it on top of her toy chest–in preparation for story time that night. You can count on me, Charlotte.