Kelsey, who wrote the piece below was first my student when she was in middle school, and then again briefly in high school. I have watched her with her brothers and sisters, and have read some of the things she has posted on her facebook page, and have really kind of watched her grow up into this amazing, funny, incredibly caring individual. Plus she cracks me up. And she’s a really good writer, too. Usually bloggers ask other bloggers to guest post to gain some new readers. I asked Kelsey to guest post because I wanted to share her writing with you. Enjoy.
When Anna (wow, strange to call my middle school teacher by her first name) asked me to write a little something as a guest on her blog, I thought I didn’t know what to write about. …And then half a second passed by and I knew what I wanted to write about.
All she said was that she knew I had an interest in kids with special needs (I had previously used her as a reference when applying to a camp for children and adults with special needs) and that I could write whatever I wanted… so I did. Here is whatever I wanted:
About a year ago, I began working as a counselor at a summer camp that also provides weekend respites throughout non-summer months. All of the campers who attend these programs have special needs of some sort and their ages can range from 6 to anyone older than 6 who enjoys going to camp. When I explain my job to people, I usually just tell them that I get to play all day with my friends (and then at night, I specialize in getting them to brush their teeth when they don’t want to).
The first thing I thought about writing for this post was a story about this time when I was trying to engage a camper I was pretty familiar with. (We will just call her camper A.) She was pretty young and had come to most respite weekends that I had worked over the past few months, yet the things I learned about her likes and dislikes were limited to the fact that she liked to go for walks and that she quickly grew bored without one-on-one attention.
She wasn’t quite non-verbal, but she didn’t say much, and whenever I asked her a question, her answer was generally just “yeah.” Of course, her “no” was very defined when she was opposed to something, too, so I knew she had to have had some level of comprehension when I spoke to her… I just didn’t know where to place that level.
One day, while I was putting together the beginnings of a puzzle with another camper, I noticed camper A becoming agitated (most likely out of boredom) and beginning to upset other campers as a result. So I brought her over to the puzzle table to join those of us working, fully expecting her to sit and watch. To my surprise, though, she jumped right in and quickly assembled half of the puzzle on her own.
The thing is, you can’t “place that level” anywhere. Those of us who spend time with children (and adults, for that matter) with special needs KNOW that they are capable of more than the world sometimes tells them. Sometimes people who “just don’t get it” can be excruciatingly cruel in excluding them from opportunities because it is assumed that they simply can’t accomplish what “everyone else” can. That’s just hogwash considering everyone has their strengths and weaknesses to begin with, no matter which medical diagnosis you have tacked onto your nametag. But quite honestly, even those of us who know this best can be guilty of the same fault. After seeing what this camper could do, even with a simple puzzle, I realized that I was limiting her in other areas.
Therefore, when we sat down at the waterfront later on and I noticed her happily failing at firing a push-and-pull squirt gun, I didn’t let her continue on like I might have previously. I showed her again and again how to work it properly, part of me wondering if my attempts were futile… and low and behold, they were not. After enough demonstration and reminder, she learned how to properly work the toy and her squeals of delight grew and grew as she did it successfully again and again. It wasn’t that she shouldn’t be allowed to use the toy incorrectly… it was that not trying to teach her because I thought she wouldn’t understand was depriving her of an opportunity. (Of course, I eventually realized the monster I created when she began to soak my previously dry clothing… but that’s not the point.)
Through this job, I have met several young people who know they have what it takes to be successful- they just need some assistance. A lot of them also understand that many people in the world are not willing to give them the time and energy they deserve in order for them to reach their potential. Or rather, they know that this is a pattern… I can’t say that any of them understand it. And neither do I. It has been said time and time again that people who have disabilities can and want to do just as much as anyone else… and this is so, so true. But it’s not enough to parade that idea around on a button pinned to your t-shirt. It has to be actively practiced and enforced, even if you think you’re already doing all you could possibly need to do.
Even after this realization, I still find myself accidentally limiting campers in ways that seem so tiny and insignificant that it couldn’t possibly make a difference. (i.e. buttoning their coats or tying their shoes for them, simply because it’s faster if I do it.) However, I also know that rationalization to be a simple matter of trying to make myself feel better for these slip-ups. The reality of the situation is that even small limitations pile up quickly. It doesn’t matter if someone has been denied the education route they really could benefit from, or simply the chance to put together their own macaroni necklace. So many kids with special needs are told they can’t can’t can’t… and, most commonly, without being told anything at all.
Obviously, the solution to all of this would be for everyone to be perfect, so that helpers always knew how best to provide their help, be they parents, friends, caregivers, teachers, etc. In that case, though, those who needed help would also be perfect, therefore not requiring help in the first place. Maybe perfection isn’t what’s necessary here, though. Maybe a little reminder every now and then, on the other hand, is.