by Dr. MelindaJoy Mingo
I listened in silence and disbelief as my friend who is working with displaced and abused children in Rwanda shared the sad stories of how some children with disabilities are stereotyped and culturally seen as ‘invisible’.
She described how children are labeled in villages and communities in negative ways to such an extent that some teachers have even refused to teach children who are considered.
I have been giving much thought to what it means to advocate for all children and perhaps think of language that is not demeaning or culturally devaluing.
One thought I have to change the language of describing a child from ‘at-risk’ to ‘at- promise’ or something similar.
Others have drifted to what they consider more sensitive or politically correct language, by using phrases such as “special needs,” “differently abled,” “people of all abilities,” “handi-capable,”
As you are an advocate for all children who come through CASA, perhaps it is simply the message of love and care that makes the difference.
I have included some suggestions below of ways to advocate for the inclusion of all children.
- Approach the child the same way you would approach one of their peers––with kindness and respect. Children who have already gone through abuse and neglect just want to know that you care about their safety and well being.
- Learn about the child’s disability. To educate yourself, you can: Ask other disabled adults (some of whom write informative internet articles), check out organizations run by disabled adults, read relevant books, and talk to the child’s parents/caregivers. The child may also be able to give you information about his or her needs directly.
- Assume that the child is competent and well-meaning. If you hold positive expectations of the child, then he or she will seek to meet those expectations. Become a model of respectful behavior, and the child will follow you.
- Respect the child’s differences. Don’t teach a child to be ashamed of his or her accessibility equipment, therapists, or coping methods (for example, stimming). If the child isn’t hurting anyone, he or she has no reason to be ashamed. Instead of teaching disabled children to look like others, teach others to accept differences.
- Work to include the child in the community. Ask the child how certain situations might be made more accessible to him or her. He or she may have great ideas! Educate the child’s peers so they can become part of the supportive community.
- Help the child meet other disabled people, and present him or her with stories of disabled people (fictional and real). This will help build the child’s self-esteem and teach him or her that a good life is possible if you are disabled. Disabled people can also share tips and coping strategies with each other. They can connect in a way that others can’t.
- Accept the child for who he or she is. Build upon his or her strengths, help the child to overcome or get around any weaknesses, and teach him or her that disability has nothing to do with human dignity. Your unconditional support will build the child’s self-esteem and prepare him or her for a happy and fulfilling life.
- Remember that every child you advocate for is a human being. The main thing is to bring every child into a place of safety for them to ‘just be themselves.’ You are a key to their hope and encouragement!
“I wish for a world that views disability, mental or physical, not as a hindrance but as unique attributes that can be seen as powerful assets if given the right opportunities.” – Oliver Sacks, neurologist, naturalist, and author