I recently became involved with the Joseph Maley Foundation, an organization that was founded in 2008 by the parents and siblings of Joseph Maley. Joseph was born with physical and cognitive disabilities and was nonverbal. He touched the lives of many in his 18 years of life, and the foundation’s goal is to carry on his legacy by serving children of all abilities. They provide sports programs for children with and without disabilities to learn to adapt and play together. They provide education to school-aged children about what it’s like to live with a disability through their “disABILITY Awareness Weeks” at multiple schools in the Indianapolis and surrounding areas. Their mission is to educate children about disabilities, and to hopefully make it easier for able-bodied children to understand and accept others living with disabilities.
I have become a regular speaker at many of the “disABILITY Awareness Week” programs. I speak to elementary school children about my disability, how it affects me, and more importantly, how to see the person behind the disability.
I feel it is important to educate children about disabilities. Children are inquisitive. So many times I hear parents shush their children when they ask about someone’s disability in public. It’s not wrong to ask. If they never ask questions and are never educated about disabilities, they will be less likely to try to befriend a peer with a disability.
Humans are conditioned to notice differences. When we see someone using a wheelchair or other assistive device, we notice it. That’s not wrong, it is human nature. Our mission is to educate others, and allow them to be inquisitive. Asking questions opens up a dialog that can help you understand that person on a deeper level. Once we understand our differences, they become less scary. Opening this type of dialog takes you one step closer to understanding and acceptance.
Bullying is a hot topic in schools and in our society. Unfortunately, according to Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center, “Children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers.” They report that, “One study shows that 60 percent of students with disabilities report being bullied regularly compared with 25 percent of all students.”
If we can have open discussions with children about disabilities, this helps eliminate the fear of approaching someone with a disability and facilitates a safe place for them to get their questions answered. More importantly, it shows them that people with disabilities are not much different than themselves. We all have weaknesses, barriers and things we are self-conscious about. When we look past our differences, we find more similarities than we realize at first sight.
When I speak to children about my experiences as a person with a disability, I try to focus on the fact that while we may do things a little differently, we also have many similarities. I encourage them to ask about disabilities because that is the only way they will learn. Education is a powerful tool to combat bullying. When we know more about a person, when we can see them as human beings with feelings, we are less likely to judge them unfairly.