Hello Nicole – October 2000

Dear Nicole, I am the mom of a beautiful 18 month old boy, Oliver, with cerebral palsy. I would love […]

Dear Nicole,

I am the mom of a beautiful 18 month old boy, Oliver, with cerebral palsy. I would love to hear from you and your readers on what their parents did or didn’t do that really helped them become strong independent (or as independent as possible) people. Sometimes its hard for me to imagine that Oliver will ever be an “adult” thinking about things like careers and dating (gee the thought of my able bodied child being an adult scares me too!! must be a mom thing!) Let me know how I can help my son become the most he can be.

Sincerely, Oliver’s Mom

Dear Mom,

Hopefully, readers will write in to give us more ideas on this since raising a child is such a huge endeavor. I think anyone person you ask would give you a differently useful answer! (Hint hint.)

Firstly, the fact that you are writing and asking this question is a wonderful indication that you are going to be a supportive mother to Oliver. A very common mistake parents of children with disabilities make is to try to raise their children to think they are “just like” able bodied kids. Part of this kind of upbringing may involve isolating the child from others with disabilities and forcing them to fit in with “regular” kids. Many parents do this with good intentions, thinking it will teach their children that they are equal humans and that their disabilities should not effect their success in the world, school, relationships etc. Unfortunately, denying that our disabilities will have an impact on our lives is not honest and therefore not useful. Forcing a child to see him/herself as the same as their able-bodied peers will likely lead to a lot of anxiety and feeling of inadequacy because the child (and everyone else) knows they are different in a significant way.

Of course, segregating children with disabilities or forcing them to be around others with disabilities is not the answer either. I have seen parents try too hard to get their disabled child to relate to an adult or even another child with a disability. The child resists the relationship because he/she can sense that it is being forced on them in order to assuage whatever is “wrong” with them (and this other disabled person too). The most important aspect to raising a confident disabled child in my mind is never to give the message that there is something wrong with them. Acknowledging the inconveniences, the hardship, the suffering, the difference, the injustice dealt to them – this is important! – however must at all times be done without a sense of wrongness.

Therefore, I would be careful not pressure Oliver to be friendly with other people with disabilities, but treat the situation as you would any other relationship. Simply allow him the opportunity to relate to others with disabilities by placing him in certain environments (attending disability pride rallies, inviting someone with a disability over for dinner, etc). Have regular meaningful contact with people of all ages and with all kinds of disabilities. There must be a balance of the able and disabled world. The idea is simply to make disability another natural part of your household’s culture. This way he can grow up seeing that he does fit into society even if the majority is able-bodied. He will also learn how to make accommodations for his disability in order to achieve life goals.

Be a real part of the political and cultural disability rights movement. No one with a disability can afford to be non-politically active. Get Oliver aquatinted with his legislators at an early age! There is going to be plenty of injustice in Oliver’s life. Prejudice against people with disabilities is real. By making our voices heard politically and culturally (such as by protesting the Jerry Lewis telethon) we are slowly changing our society. Involving Oliver in this movement will foster a sense of power in him and let him see there are things that he can do to fight injustice. The reason the disability movement has been so slow is because the vast majority of people with disabilities are inactive. We are the largest minority group in america and yet the most under-represented. I believe most people with disabilities are inactive because we are raised under the constant message that there is something terribly wrong with us and so we should just wait quietly and gratefully while others figure out what should be done with us. I think it is very interesting to note that most of our strongest leaders have been people with later onset disabilities where they were raised “normally” – without the overarching stigma society puts on people with disabilities.

Raising any child to grow up strong and independent is a challenge, raising a disabled child is simply more complex. In the end, I think that seeing you valuing and accepting others with disabilities is the only true way you can teach Oliver to value and accept himself.

— Nicole