Special Needs in the Rear View Mirror

Thornton, Colorado, February 23, 2017. A heartwarming story broke of a teen inviting a peer with special needs to their school prom, replete with onlookers, flowers, and even serenading violins.  It’s the kind of story we all love to hear. The two became friends as he volunteered in her gym class as a helper. His face glows with the esteem he has for her, in spite of her wheelchair. “Funny and smart,” are words he uses to describe the girl for whom he planned this elaborate prom-posal. It’s what every parent like me would dream of for their kids.

Recalling how it used to be

I couldn’t help but watch this news report and think of how that sort of scenario would have played out in my generation. I attended high school longer ago than I care to admit. Still, I recall the piercingly cruel joke of one of my peers during a phy ed class where we were in a dreaded segment on square dancing.

During a pause where the students waited for the teacher to regroup, a fellow student got down on one knee and mockingly proposed to a girl with unspecified special needs, "Karen, will you marry me?" I can still see her, large head protruding, hairline receding, unnaturally bulging eyes, outdated clothes and noticeable body odor, all eyes on her as she uncomfortably looked around. The boys in the class let out an uproarious laugh as one brave, angry, female student yelled, “You are SO immature! Knock it off!” I felt like crying for the subject of this cruelty. It was the worst nightmare of any teen on the face of the earth.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t uncommon behavior back in my day. Kids with cognitive and social issues were consistently mocked. Students with Down Syndrome never attended school with us. And wheelchair accessibility was nonexistent. Any kindness and inclusion from peers were a rarity.

Fast forward to today

Looking at special needs in the rear view mirror brings me a shocking awakening to how far we have come. One of my kids has special accommodations for test-taking. Another has adaptations to take into account physical challenges. While kids will always be unbelievably cruel, a much larger number of them are growing in acceptance of their peers with challenges. Inclusion is on the rise. Models of all abilities appear in store ads and magazines. This is not how it was less than a lifetime ago.

Looking back to go forward

So often we parents can feel discouraged about the current condition of the world around us. Schools don’t cooperate with us. Doctors treat us with dismissive arrogance. Churches continue to marginalize us. The size of the mountains we face can be so achingly overwhelming. Stories like the prom-posal seem too few and far between.

Yet, it’s at times like these that we need to make time to reflect on how far we have come. Looking back at all God has helped us overcome bolsters our confidence to march forward. We recall that the Lord has been faithful before and He will be again.

Sure, we have miles to go on making the world more loving, accessible, and inclusive of people of all abilities. The task appears daunting if we think about it long enough. Still, we have been blessed to see our world significantly improve in our generation. That bodes well for the days ahead.