By Shari Adelson-Pollard
**Originally published in the Fall 2007 Special Needs issue of The Journal of API and published on TheAttachedFamily.com in August 2009
When I was young, I would sometimes join in with other kids who picked on those who were different. In my fifth-grade class, there was a girl who had a neuromuscular disorder. Her name was Michelle; she was a small girl, shorter than the rest of us, with long brown hair. We made fun of the way she walked. Then in junior high, a boy who was mentally retarded rode our school bus. Every day, the kids would tease him, throw things at him, and mimic his speech. He tried to ignore them, but you could tell he was really hurt by it. He would sit in his seat and keep his head down.
I wish I could say I increased my acceptance of people with disabilities over the years. But my attitude as an adult still left much to be desired. I clean houses for a living, and one of my clients has a teenage son who has a mental disability. I would dread the days that he was home from school because he would want to tell me all about his Yu-Gi-Oh card collection, and he was always afraid I would vacuum up his beloved Legos. I would have preferred to avoid his company.
I had similar feelings for the young woman with a mental disability who works at our grocery store. I’m ashamed to admit that I used to dread her carrying out my groceries, because she would repeat the same story several times. And I was in too big a hurry to hear what she was saying.
My Son…with Down Syndrome
Then I became pregnant with Brandon, my fifth child. Things seemed normal at first. I refused all prenatal testing, even though I was 38 years old. I felt that nothing a test could tell me would matter or change my idea of having a baby.
But toward the end of my pregnancy, something seemed different. Maybe it was because I had suffered a tubal pregnancy six months before and was still skittish, or because I didn’t feel as much fetal movement as I did with the others. Or maybe it was mother’s intuition. Out of curiosity, I started checking websites for information on Down syndrome. Looking back on it now, it gives me an eerie feeling that this diagnosis was the only thing I ever researched, because when Brandon was born, he was diagnosed with Down syndrome.
During those first hours following the diagnosis, I was full of fear of the unknown. I was angry, sad, hurt, and felt lots of self-pity. Then of course, I wondered how this would affect my other children and how they would react to their new brother.
The day I came home from the hospital, the early intervention team called to tell me about physical and occupational therapy. I was astonished at all that was expected of my little son, and of me. I am the mother of four other boys; I thought nothing could shock me anymore! But I realized my new beautiful son was going to need our help and I was determined he would get it. This was my first step towards acceptance.
A Change in Heart
Two weeks after Brandon was born, my oldest son, Conrad, graduated from high school. In a class of more than 400, it is hard to stand out as one of the best. Only three students were chosen to give speeches during the ceremony. One of the boys chosen had Williams Syndrome, a chromosomal disorder. I cried through his whole speech. Afterward, he was given a standing ovation. For the first time, I thought to myself, “Brandon is going to have a bright future with plenty of friends.” This was another important step toward acceptance of Brandon’s diagnosis.
My next steps were easier to make, because of the wonderful support I received from my family, just as I had my whole life. When I had had marital problems and divorced, my parents opened their home to me and my children, letting us live with them until I was able to get back on my feet, which was a great help and comfort. Then I revisited the website I had sought out while pregnant, the BabyCenter.com Down syndrome bulletin board. Interacting with other women in my situation enabled me to relax a bit and feel more confident.
Remorse and Healing
As I took even more steps toward acceptance of Brandon’s diagnosis and the changes it brought into my life, I regretted my previous attitude toward people with disabilities. I still feel bad about my behavior toward those who couldn’t help their circumstances in life. I wish I could go back and change the way I treated them. But all I can do is pay attention to how I react and treat people now.
Now, when I see the young woman at the grocery store, I take the time to listen, to ask her questions, and to make conversation with her. Now, when my client’s teenage son is home, I talk to him about his cards and ask him about his baseball team, and I really enjoy our chats.
These days I make a point to be friendly to other families who have a child with a disability. During a recent trip to Disneyland, while waiting in line for the monorail, I saw a child with Down syndrome in front of us. I started small talk with the parents, instead of looking away. Turns out they lived in our area, and we became friends. Acceptance has its benefits!
Best of all, I’ve seen how accepting Brandon’s brothers are of him. My two younger boys don’t even notice a difference in Brandon. My older two boys are already protective of him. My son Corey always says, “Brandon, you’re going to be the smartest person ever with Down syndrome.”
I’m confident that Brandon’s brothers will not have the same narrow views that I used to have regarding people with disabilities. I think they will be the kind of boys who will refuse to join in with the teasing so common in our society. I think they’ll be more welcoming to the hard-working individuals who carry their groceries.
Hope for Other Parents
I want to offer hope to parents facing a new diagnosis of Down syndrome. I was and am where you are, and where you will be. Remember, the broken heart is in you, not your child with Down syndrome. Within a short time, your broken heart will transform into a heart filled with love and amazement at this incredible person. You, too, will find the peace of acceptance.
Responding With Sensitivity
It is preferable when speaking about a child with a disability to put the child before their physical or mental characteristics. This makes their identity as a child most prominent. For example, one might say “a child with Down syndrome” rather than “a Down syndrome child.”