This is something that's been on my mind for months now. It started out as a blog on how to interact with kids who have special needs and their families - a practical how-to designed to alleviate some of the awkwardness and insensitivity I felt like I encountered so often. But once I got past 'don't ignore the presence of a kid with special needs' and 'never use the word retarded in reference to anything,' I couldn't really come up with anything universal. A comment that might seem like a no-brainer encouragement in some instances could be very hurtful if you've just had a rough day with therapies or development or doctor's appointments or you-name-it. The same question asked by two different people could come across as either kind interest or offensive prying.
So, I thought, maybe it has to do with intent. Maybe the point is to make sure that a person's heart is in the right place, so to speak -- to ask yourself what you're hoping to accomplish before you plunge into a conversation with someone else based solely on their differences. And certainly, this is helpful. If you find yourself tempted to ask a question or make a comment about someone before even saying hello, or to pass by without making eye contact, asking yourself Why? can be very eye-opening. But not everyone does that. And even people who do don't magically learn the 'right' thing to say by examining their motives. Plus, as the object of the questions/comments/avoidance (or, the mother of said object), judging intent puts you in the position of mind reader, which isn't fair to anyone involved. People who seem genuinely interested may end up condescending or just nosy. People with the best intentions may come off sounding like jerks. Heck, I grew up with a beloved uncle with developmental disabilities and I live smack dab in the middle of the special needs community and I often don't know the 'right' thing to say to another mother or her child.
The conclusion? If you can't issue general guidelines and you can't rely on good intentions, how can you make people learn how to better and more compassionately interact with individuals with special needs? You really can't. But does that mean that you're doomed to a lifetime of awkward/rude interactions that subsequently ruin your day? Oh no no.
I suggest that the answer is grace. There are all kinds of synonyms for grace I could list: mercy, pardon, favor, etc. The common factor in each definition, though, is that it is freely given. It isn't earned, and in fact can't be. I can't make people say or do the things that are most encouraging or helpful, but I can choose how to respond to them. And lately, I've been trying to choose (and strive and pray) to practice extending grace even when people don't deserve it, even when it seems like they should know better, even when they're doing their best but I'm just in a funk. When people stare, I catch their eye and smile. When a lady comes up to me with a sad look and asks if my baby is blind, I explain to her about cortical visual impairment and introduce her to Collin. When people avoid Collin for whatever reason, I offer them my example of interaction. When I just don't feel like answering the battery of questions about Collin's medical and developmental history, I try to be thankful that someone is interested and answer anyway. When someone uses the word 'retard' or 'retarded' in any conversation, I refrain from kicking them in the kneecaps.
I don't always do this well and I definitely don't do it because I'm trying to be the better or bigger person. I have my own reasons for thinking grace is the answer. I believe in Jesus as the Son of God and everything that comes along with that; and the way that ultimate Grace was extended to me has changed everything about my life and the way I live it. And now I wonder if there is really any other useful way to do things outside of grace. If you don't offer it, what will change? Are you going to teach someone a lesson if you come up with a witty retort? You may feel a little better (temporarily), but likely no one will learn anything. It's grace - freely given favor, mercy, help, compassion - that makes people want to change.
So, I don't know why I was surprised that my interactions with others concerning Collin became markedly better when I started to err on the side of grace. The lady who asked about Collin being blind now knows him by name and makes a point to stop and cheer him on during aquatherapy. I have found myself more willing to share about Collin and have consequently had the privilege of others confiding in me about struggles of their own. By responding with grace, do I keep myself from ever being hurt by insensitive remarks or ensure that every person I encounter goes away enlightened? Not even close. But it has made me more accepting of others and others more accepting of Collin. What's not good about that?