Some time ago I posted a message on Twitter asking if there was anything specific anyone wanted my to write about on my blog.
I got a lovely message back asking if I could write a post about disability, specifically how children learn about, and ultimately how they react when they meet disabled people.
I've thought long and hard about this post. I wondered whether I should write it. You see, I can be clumsy with my words, I'm not exactly known for my politically correct speech, and the absolute last thing in the world I want to do is offend anyone.
I didn't want to write something that would be perceived as a 'simplistic' portrayal of the issues people face. However, it would be about how I deal with issues with my very young daughter, so in a sense my approach has to be simple and straightforward.
It saddened me to hear on Twitter that this lady was 'demonised' by children. That she suffered the upset and humiliation of being pointed at and laughed about simply because she's in a wheelchair. Or worse still, parents have hurried their children away from her as though she had some terrible contagious disease.
It occurred to me, that by not discussing such issues, we're only exacerbating the problem, and creating a stigma.
Ruby has grown up with some family members who have disabilities. It is perfectly normal and natural to her. Her great uncle is registered blind and uses a guide dog. From a very young age, she was told that Uncle's eyes don't work properly and he can't see, so he has a very special dog who helps him cross the road safely, go to the shops, get about the house... We arranged a visit to her nursery so the other children could meet and learn all about guide dogs and what it is like to be blind. It was an amazing experience to see 20 toddlers sit and listen in awe.
Ruby is also aware that some people use a wheelchair to get about, because they can't walk as well as we can. She is used to going out with her Great-grandmother who has mobility difficulties, and from a young age thought nothing of being pushed round the park - me pushing her in her pushchair, and my mum pushing her mum in the wheelchair.
It was a long time before she questioned why Nanny had a 'pushchair'. Well, why would she? As she was able to understand more and more, we explained that although Nanny can walk a little bit around the house, when she goes for longer journeys her legs don't work too well so the wheelchair (we no longer referred to it as a pushchair!) helps her get out and about.
Ruby also regularly sees wheelchair users on the bus. She has, in the past, shouted out (in true super-loud toddler fashion) "Look! That lady's got a wheelchair like Nanny has". Well, kids come out with things don't they? There's no point shushing her up. I simply replied (in an equally loud voice!) "Yes, she has. Perhaps she can't walk very well just like Nanny". I'd much prefer to be open and upfront, than try to change the subject and get embarrassed. It has happened a few times, sometimes it has opened up a conversation between the person and Ruby as they've explained why they are in a wheelchair, other times it hasn't, and we've just had a smile in exchange. But at least they didn't feel like we were talking about them behind their back.
A little while ago while we were at the swimming pool. A man came out to the poolside in a wheelchair. Ruby stopped splashing about and watched him - I don't mean she stared at him, we were a long way away in another pool. She just stood quietly and watched. I could see what was going through her mind as her wheeled his chair to the pool edge, in his swimming trunks, but I said nothing and let her see for herself what he was going to do.
He reached under his chair and retrieved 2 sticks, then raised himself out of the chair and shuffled to sit at the edge of the pool. He put his sticks down and dived in, and he was off. Swimming length after length.
Ruby watched all this without saying a word, and then carried on what she was doing. Perhaps I should have talked it through with her, but there didn't seem any need. It was a perfect example for her to see that he could approach things differently, yet still be able to do what others were doing.
In preparation for writing this post, we went to the library to see if there were any books specifically for pre-schoolers, to teach them about disabiltiy. To be honest, we struggled to find anything suitable, but after some assistance from the librarian, we came away with a copy of 'I'm Special' by Jen Green.
It's a very sensitively approached book, which focuses on the feelings and difficulties faced due to people's attitudes. It was a nice gentle book, which was about empowerment and focused on what people could do rather than what they couldn't, the underlying message being that everyone is different and everyone is special.
Interestingly, we came across a character in the book, Mr Black a headteacher. Ruby remarked at the picture "look, he's only got one arm like Cerrie". This really surprised me, because in all the time we have been watching cbeebies, she has never once commented on Cerrie's disability. She has just accepted her for who she is.
It occured to me that young children see new and different things all the time. They tend to accept them without trouble. It's not the children who are the issue here, it's more likely the parent's attitude that has lead to the upset my Twitter friend suffered.
I'm sure people living with a disability have enough difficulties to overcome, having my daughter point and laugh will not be one of them.