Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

Out Of The Mouth Of Babes

Children often have the right of things. It is as they grow up that they learn to notice differences in people. It is often their parents that teach them (consciously or not) to fear the differences.

Just about once a week, when I am at the shopping mall, a parent of a young child will grab their kid by the arm and pull them away when I approach. They are trying to make sure their child is safe, that I won’t hit them. That’s fair enough, a child’s safety is important. It is, however, irritating when you are going at a slow pace and your path is a good 4 or 5 meters away from their path. It seems like the assumption is that as a wheelchair user, you have no control over your trajectory or movements. Of course, children can also do unexpected things, like swerving right in front of people’s path. This is just an example of how parents unwittingly teach children to fear wheelchair users, from a very young age.

Kids don’t really notice mobility devices. It’s been my experience that if they do, they are interested in the shiny bits, in the moving parts, in the wheels, because it’s "cool". Or they have a healthy dose of curiousity: I heard a 4 year old boy ask his mum why I was still in a pram once! That kind of curiousity is fabulous, it is amusing. And such questions deserve honest and complete answers. As complete an answer as the child’s age will allow anyway. But all too often, parents try and shush the kids. "It’s not polite to ask", they tell their kid. I’m not convinced the children learn about politeness so much as to avoid talking to people with disabilities. To be fair, it’s a tricky topic and there’s probably no easy answer for the parent.

I do wish that parents didn’t quiet their children too promptly though. Because the kids sometimes come up with the cleverest things! I remember one girl in particular. She would have been about 5 or 6, with her mother, at the grocery store. They were waiting in line for one cashier, I was waiting in line next to them for another cashier.

Suddenly the girl looked at me, her eyes grew big like saucers. She grinned at me. She stuck her hand out, finger pointing at me. She started talking quite loudly to get mum’s attention.

"Mom, mom! Look! Look at the man! Mooo-ooom!"

By that time mum looked quite embarassed, and was telling her daughter to stop pointing and stop talking.

Undeterred, the child, this wonderful child, said: "Look mom, that man is wearing the same hat I’m wearing!".

And sure enough, we were both sporting baseball caps for the Chicago White Socks.

I couldn’t help laughing. People around us, fully aware of the exchange between the kid and her mother were also amused. The mother was thoroughly red in the face. She shouldn’t have been embarassed. Her kid noticed a similarity with me and thought it was cool. I think it was cool too.

It’s time we paid attention to the children’s awareness, and immitate them by celebrating similarities rather than concentrating on differences.