It had taken some courage to sign our daughter up for a toddler gymnastics class in our community. The class required parent participation and with the bouncy floor and various obstacles, we knew it wouldn’t be easy. My husband and I had seen the room, considered where and how we could move about in our wheelchairs and on the floor. We decided that we could do it and more importantly-that Hannah would love it.
After a few sessions, we’d figured out ways to accompany and help Hannah on an off the equipment. She has always loved to climb, crawl, and jump her way through life. She also loved the social connections the class provided. She wasn’t yet in a daycare setting so this was one of her first opportunities to interact with lots of children at once. She learned their names. We learned their names and even in the early toddler years, some children seemed to gravitate more towards each other than others. There were a few girls and boys that Hannah seemed particularly drawn to. She’d seek them out at stations and vice versa.
It was one of these girls that I noticed was carefully handing out envelopes to each child as they were seated on the line at the end of class. She buzzed back and forth from her mom to each child in line. The little girl’s mom began to help with the process. She quickly handed an envelope to each of the children seated on either side of Hannah and then moved down the row. In the commotion, the gymnastics instructor was also stamping hands and feet to celebrate the completion of another class. Thankfully, Hannah was distracted by the stamping and happily bounced off after she received hers.
At the time, I had no idea what was in the envelope. Over the last few years, I’ve been handed or passed all sorts of things from other parents: Will you buy some cookies for my Girl Scout? Will you join our sticker chain mail group? Will you donate to the XZY walk. My child will walk 1000 laps. There are also lots of instances where an envelope like this could hold plans to pool a donation or a present for the teacher in appreciation. I didn’t know what was inside and at the time, wasn’t thinking much about it.
I approached the mom-who had been very friendly with us throughout the class-and let her know that Hannah hadn’t received one. I remember asking if Hannah needed one as well.
The level of awkward reached an all-time high and for a moment, I thought my question might have literally frozen the woman! I immediately wished I could have retracted my question and we all could have gone about our day. But it was too late.
The woman stammered for a few seconds. At the same time, I….and now Hannah….could see the other children excitedly tearing open their envelopes to see a birthday party invitation. Some jumped up and down and many of them chattered about the party. Eventually, the woman explained that she hadn’t invited Hannah because their house wasn’t accessible and she didn’t know how we would get in to accompany her to the party.
I wish I could share that I replied with something that was thoughtful, educational, or even memorable. A few years have passed and to be honest, I don’t even remember my exact response-only how I felt. I somehow expressed that I understood what had happened, accepted her answer, and moved on. We saw each other week after week after this and while awkward, I didn’t want to make the situation unbearable.
In true 2-year-old fashion, Hannah asked a bit about the party on the way out the door and then became distracted by all of the other awesomeness there is to life. For that, I was thankful. Still, the moment was temporarily crushing for me. I can still see the visual of Hannah’s little hand out for her envelope and then her eyes watching all the other children opening theirs. It was eye-opening that an adult would think it completely justified to exclude a child based on their parents’ disabilities-and do so in such an explicit manner.
Whether right or wrong on the other parent’s behalf, the incident woke worries in me that Hannah would have trouble making friends-through no fault of her own but because her parents are in wheelchairs. I wondered how many other events she’d be excluded from because of us.
Three years later, I’m thankful for the timing of this challenging moment. Had it happened today, Hannah would have had so many, many more questions. We talk very openly about disability and even about how many people don’t understand or accept differences in others but this situation would be hard to relive at any age. We’ve successfully participated in many more programs and events in our community. My husband and I are frequent faces in our children’s classrooms and the kids and parents are almost always very welcoming. There will always be isolated instances of ignorance. We’ve learned to speak up more in early phases of relationships and not to worry as much when some connections just don’t work out. I’m more open about the way I problem solve getting in and out of places that are not accessible. As my children get older, I realize that I want them to befriend and spend time with friends and families that are open-minded and accepting. If a parent is not open-minded enough to accept our family than they are likely close-minded about other issues and people.
Lastly, the event taught me that I will never be able to control all the sources of potential pain that the outside world can introduce to my child(ren). It’s tempting to withdraw….Drop out of the classes and hunker down in your safe, happy home. That approach, however, lets the ignorance prevail. Our family would be missing out on our community, friendships, and all that this world has to offer……and that world would be missing out on our family.