I am a single Mom with multiple disabilities who utilizes a service dog. I am also a disability consultant and motivational speaker.
I travel the country with my service dogs, to visit schools, scout troops, businesses and such; teaching about the wonderful benefits that service dogs provide for their partners with disabilities through a motivational speaking program that teaches people to believe in the beauty of their dreams.
I was partnered with my first service animal in 1999, after sustaining multiple injuries after a 1998 accident. I was forced to relearn how to read, write, walk and talk all over again. My service dog pulled my wheelchair, alerted to my seizures, and taught me how to walk again...most importantly, he taught me how to LIVE again!
I was disheartened to learn that while my independence hinged upon the assistance of my dog, and I was aware how special he was, that the general public was not as impressed. While out in public with my service dog, I've been yelled at, laughed at, had things thrown at me and my dog, and have had kids scream at the tops of their lungs because I have a service dog in a store/restaurant/movie theater, etc...
With kids, you can kind of understand, cause after all; they're kids. From the adults, I've been illegally denied access to public places (more times than I can count!), sneered at, called names, snickered at, and was once even told (this is my personal favorite "Ah, you're faking it; you don't really need that dog or wheelchair! You just wanted to bring your doggie shopping with you!"
And you thought we lived in a "tolerant" society, didn't you?
Well, I can tell you from a personal perspective that today's society is anything but tolerant. But we can change all that! We're the parents of the next generation!
My daughter once told a passerby who attempted to pet my service dog, "You can't pet Dawson; he's working"...she was three at the time.
I'm amazed at how willing kids are to learn about disabilities; and how they really grasp the concept of looking past disabilities to focus on the person's Abilities. They are more than willing to learn; we just have to make it a priority to teach them.
Age appropriate education and refreshers are very important to teach our children. Many kids with disabilities are being integrated into the mainstream of the public school system. In order to achieve a successful integration, it is important to implement disability awareness. In addition, today's children are our future; teaching them tolerance of those who are differently Abled now, ensures a more accepting society in years to come.
I'd like to share a few disability awareness tips that you can share with your child, and help open lines of communication.
1. Take a quiet moment at home to sit down and talk with your child about people who may be different from him/her. (Perhaps you could get a book from the library to help broach the subject and provide guidelines). Let your child know that while people come in all shapes, colors, abilities and sizes; and while we may look, sound, or do things differently; inside, we are all very much the same. Use specific examples, and positive "first person" language while keeping conversation open to questions (if you don't know the first person language, do a google search to learn more).
2. Let your child know that canes, wheelchairs, walkers, assistance dogs, and other medical assistive devices are an extension of the person with disabilities, and should not be leaned on, tampered with, stared (or pointed) at, or played with.
3. Taking the time to teach your child about peoples' differences at home can prevent a potentially embarrassing outburst in public! Remember, you won't be the only one to be embarrassed if your child yells out, "Hey Mommy, Why does that man only have one leg!" or "LOOK, there's a dog in the store!" ... as a PWD, I can tell you that this type of unwanted attention can be quite embarrassing; on both sides.
That being said, all the preparation in the world may not sensor the excitement of a child seeing a service dog in a store for the first time! I hear so many parents who are abhorred by their child's outburst regarding my service dog, shushing their child; "Shhh! We don't talk about that like that!" At that moment, the damage is done; take the golden opportunity to stop whatever you are doing and get down on your child's level. Explain that that person has a dog in the store because the dog is specially trained to help the person do things that he/she has difficulty with.
4. Keep in mind that not all disabilities are visible. I'm a case in point; I have a traumatic brain injury & MS. While I spent a period of time "on wheels" while recovering from my accident in 1998, I'm able to walk these days (and on really, really good days, I can even country line dance...but that's another story There are many days when a stranger would not know that I have a disability because I "appear" fine; when in reality, I may be struggling with crippling cognitive dysfunction or might be in a world of pain that absolutely exhausts me.
On the days when people with hidden disabilities are struggling, and request additional help, (or use a service dog, use a handicapped stall in a rest room, or park in a handicapped parking space); the worst thing they can hear is, "But you LOOK fine!" This implies that a person is "faking" it, or making more of their disability than they should. This sort of thing happens all the time, and I can tell you from personal experience; it is downright hurtful. Such statements should be avoided out of respect. Just because someone has a disability that cannot be seen, doesn't mean that they don't have a disability; and all of the challenges that come with it.
5. On the subject of service animals; be sure to let your child know that if they approach a working dog team, they should always address the person first; it's just good manners. It's is okay for them to say, "I like your dog," or "May I ask about your dog" Remind them that no matter how cute a dog may be, when he/she is in public, they are working and should not be disturbed. Teach them to be quiet and not make sudden movements around a dog, explaining that the dog is there to do a very important job, and if it gets distracted, the person they are supposed to be assisting could be hurt. If your child is afraid of dogs, be sure to explain to them that assistance dogs are specially selected and trained to be calm, friendly and safe around the public; and all of them have been tested around children and will not bite. (I've had a terrified child throw boxes of cereal at my dog in the supermarket, screaming at the top of their lungs because their fear and the surprise of seeing a dog in a store overwhelmed them. Proper education prior to ever meeting a service dog would have prevented this). Poor Dawson---he never even looked in the child's direction, and doesn't really care for cereal! ;-(
6. Encourage your child to include children with disabilities, to play. If the child cannot play the same as other kids, come up with innovate ways to accommodate the child's challenges. Making up games can be lots of fun!
7. When talking to a person with disabilities who may have speech or hearing impairments, talk normally, and face the person to make lip reading possible. If you didn't understand them, don't pretend that you did. Ask them to repeat themselves slowly and/or louder.
8. Lead by example! Be sure to check yourself the next time you encounter a person with disabilities in public. I never realized it before being wheelchair bound myself, then partnered with a canine companion; but people tend to ignore you and act as though you aren't even there, even if you speak directly to them!
If someone doesn't know how to act around someone with disabilities (I didn't before I became disabled!), chances are they will avoid them; it's only natural. But by learning about the different ways to communicate with PWD, and viewing PWD as feeling, caring individuals, focused on their Abilities not dis abilities; you, as a parent, will be setting a great example of tolerance for your child.
9. Teach the golden rule; Treat others the way you would want to be treated - you can never go wrong by doing that.
I hope this information has been helpful. There is such a huge need for parents to teach their kids these simple, yet very important tips! Often, we get so busy and don't even think about these issues until they crop up; or we think our kids will react appropriately and are surprised when they don't act as we expected...and that's okay. Hey, we've all been there! What's not okay is if we know the problem exists, we know how to fix it, yet choose to do nothing about it.
On behalf of all PWD, please, take your child aside today and teach them that though some people may look, sound, or do things differently, inside, we are all very much the same. Thank you!