From the time we are born, our differences and similarities place us either together or apart. Age separates into different class grades, where we live commonly defines our languages and cultures, academic skill sets put us in classes, and interests separate us into extracurriculars and eventually careers.
As a non-profit leader who serves individuals of all abilities, it is my mission to teach future generations to reach beyond these differences. As a parent, is it my responsibility to teach my children to challenge these natural boundaries. And as a believer, it is my joy to share the opportunity for people without disabilities to learn from people with disabilities.
How do we integrate typical kids and their experiences with those with special needs?
We all have different abilities, inabilities, skill sets, and challenges. Parents have the powerful opportunity to change the perspective of our community at large by simply modeling to their children, our next generation.
Many people see disabilities as burdensome or as some negative force that decreases people’s quality of life; however, it is important to teach our children to see beyond that to what makes each person unique and valuable.
I often have described the parallel between a dandelion and difference. When you are a child, you see a dandelion as a beautiful yellow flower. But somewhere along the way to adulthood, you begin to see it as a weed.
In parallel, when you are a child, you do not see differences as negative. You notice the difference but you see it as intriguing and a delight.
Somewhere along the way, we begin to see disabilities or differences as negative. As parents, we have the ability to challenge ourselves to remember differences as we did when we were young and then teach our children to hold on to that beautiful childlike perspective.
As a parent, my goal is to set an example of celebrating differences and help my children realize what makes someone different is what can actually make them fit right in. We can only do that by seeking out moments for our children to interact with people with differences and then model this interaction for them.
Like any other change in our culture, it takes time and intentionality. When spending time with kids with special needs, it does not take long to see beyond their disability to their ability.
The beauty in seeing ability rather than disability allows us to see ourselves and others the way God has made us: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16 NIV).
This verse is one that I use daily with my own children as I inspire them to be a light in how they treat others. This Scripture also drives me as a non-profit leader to remember that I want to be radiant for God in every facet of my life. My hope is that people are drawn so close to the light that the closer they come, the more they cannot help but see Jesus.
Provide opportunities for kids of all abilities to interact and create community
Teaching children about abilities and gifts is biblical and referenced all over scripture. 1 Peter 4:10 says, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” If we help our children grow up with the pursuit of seeking out those gifts in themselves, they will begin to notice them in others and treat people with the love that God displays to us.
My son, Owen, and I stopped by a local car dealership one day to see our social enterprise that employs a team of young adults of all abilities through a traveling cart as they serve coffee and transformative joy.
As I began snapping a few pictures of the Joyristas (barista + joy) working their magic, Owen joined in the formation, positioning himself front and center in the photo-op. As I motioned for him to join me behind the camera, it hit me—Owen sees himself as a part of the pack. To him, they were all a cohesive unit of friends that belong in the same photo.
Educate children at a young age to accept and value differences
When children of all abilities are given the same opportunities, it is not only life-giving to them and their families, but to our society. It may seem counterintuitive, but typical kids can learn some of life’s most important lessons from those with disabilities.
Multiple studies show that by educating children about individuals with disabilities at a young age, they become more accepting of differences throughout their entire lifetime and are more likely to form relationships with people with disabilities.
For typical kids, these friendships teach the importance of loving others who are different from themselves. For kids with disabilities, these friendships provide feelings of acceptance and normalcy.
The bottom line is that every single child benefits from these important friendships.
In the short term, these friendships benefit all children involved; in the long term, they stand to impact the world by changing our view on ability. As parents and leaders, we have an opportunity to showcase the delight instead of the disability as we create a world that embraces kids of all abilities, one moment, one interaction at a time.