March 21 is World Down Syndrome Day, a day meant to raise awareness for Down's syndrome and acceptance for people who have the condition. And it is as good a time as any to change our attitudes towards those who have Down Syndrome and any other special needs. Acceptance is the keyword. From some recent experiences I've had, we are not there yet.
I had picked my blue beaded sandals to wear that day. As I was waiting outside my daughter's art class, I felt a little nudge on my feet. I looked down to find two tiny little shoes trying to fit into the curves on the side of my sandal. I said to the little boy who seemed fascinated by my sandals, "Hi there, I think you like my sandals."
He looked up, his forehead covered with beautiful golden hair and smiled at me. "Hi there!" His smile was as radiant as the sun. He continued trying to fit in his shoes on to the side of my sandals. I asked again, "Do you like my sandals?" He looked up, smiled again and said, "Blue beads."
Now when you have a young man appreciating something so much, you need to pay attention. I knelt down and began chatting with him. We still had five minutes for the class to get over. He was waiting for his sibling I was told. His mother knelt beside me and we got chatting too. Soon the class was dismissed and we saw some children trickling out. We stood up, the little boy still playing with the beads of my sandals.
The mom said, "Thank you for talking to him." I did not quite understand what she meant and told her so. She repeated, "Thank you for talking to him. Most people don't."
"Actually thank you for having my son. He usually does not get invited to such parties."
I choked. I fumbled with my words, not knowing what to say. Why did a mom have to thank a stranger for saying hello, giving a hi-five and talking to a precious little four-year-old? Just because he has Down Syndrome and looks a little different from others? Is that reason enough?
The mother told me that apparently it was. People would withdraw upon seeing him. And, therefore, when anyone treated her son like just another child, she made it a point to thank that person.
As a mother of two, I can never imagine thanking people to just talk to my kids or saying hello to them. I take it for granted. I also thought that we have come a long way as a society and there is a greater acceptance than before for those who don't fit the norm.
But I may have been mistaken. I got a greater sense of this when I narrated this story to a friend and she had a very similar tale to tell.
Her son had invited everyone from his class for his birthday party. When the party wrapped up and the parents came by to pick their kids, she was saying her customary, "Thank you for being there for my son's birthday."
One of the dads replied, "Actually thank you for having my son. He usually does not get invited to such parties."
His son had special needs, but was trying to integrate into a regular school. My friend could not find the right words to respond to the dad. Neither she nor her son had felt that this little man needed different treatment than the rest of the children in the class. He had to be there for the party as anybody else did.
Many incidents such as these happen every single day. Why? Why the discrimination?
We talk about awareness. We are all aware, aren't we? Can we really plead ignorance in today's world? Eliminating prejudice from our minds is probably the first and most basic step. We are so caught up in the notion that everything should look and be perfect that our hearts seem to have shrunk.
"Do you like my sandals?" He looked up, smiled again and said, "Blue beads."
People with special needs have a larger heart than people who do not. People with special needs do not care much for perfection. They care for life, love, laughter and happiness. They do not discriminate and they do not have biases for the rest of us.
So, this is for you my little friend. Thank you for the company and the lovely conversation that afternoon. Thank you for loving my sandals. Thank you for looking at life so impartially and loving everyone around you so unconditionally. In sharing your story with the world, I can only hope that people take notice and stop any form of discrimination against people with special needs.