Editor, the Messenger,
Many of us are scrambling to augment our children’s education with “pandemic pods.” These small groups would allow for socialization and learning while minimizing the risk of community spread of COVID-19. Children with disabilities, however, will likely be left out of these pods. There are many reasonable excuses: Parents are not trained in special education. How do we deal with “strange” behaviors? How can we communicate if he can’t talk? What do we do with his wheelchair when we play outside? I want my child to be around other “smart” children!
You’re right. People who are differently-abled can bring extra challenges. But for every excuse not to include, there is a reason to include. People with disabilities teach us about compassion, patience, communication, and how to see strength and intelligence outside the box. Inclusion develops our ability to be comfortable with difference. Schools can play this important role. But often within the inclusion model of education, youth with disabilities are segregated from their peers and taken to rooms where they feel like an “other.” We can change this, and we can start through the pods we are forming.
I would argue this pandemic is an opportunity. So many of us have been “broken open” by what’s happening – open to changing the status quo, open to advocating for racial justice, open to building up the underserved. Here’s one way to act: a simple invitation to a child with a disability to join your pod, whether for learning or for play. It would be incumbent on parents to decide what is safe and manageable for their special-needs child.
I am a mother of one of those children. I urge people not to underestimate the power of simply being around peers. When my son observes other kids speak and self-feed and kick a ball – all things he cannot do – he is mesmerized. He is stimulated. You can almost see his brain synapses firing. When those peers push his wheelchair or hear their names added to his speech device, I believe the same thing happens to them. All this is relevant regardless of a pandemic. Yet the difference is that the pandemic has made us more creative, reimagining a new educational and social experience for our children, perhaps a more intimate one. Including children with disabilities now, in these intimate settings, could sow seeds for an empathic world that becomes comfortable with difference.
Annah Abetti Korpi
Member of Advocacy Committee Commission on Disabilities