As parents of children with special needs, we deal with a wide variety of disabilities that raise a wide variety of concerns and require a wide variety of accommodations. We do not speak with one voice on many of the things our children specifically need to be safe and secure and included in the life of their community and the wider world.
But there’s one thing we can all agree on: our children deserve respect.
They are not nuisances. They are not inconvenient. They are not impediments put in your way by troublemaking parents. They have a right to live and to learn and to play and to worship and to dine and to travel and to participate, by virtue of being human beings and citizens of their communities. We recognize that this may not always be easy, and we take responsibility for helping make inclusion happen instead of expecting it to be done for us. But the very first step, always, regardless of the situation, is respect. Respect our children. Respect our families. Or don’t expect us to respect you.
What does respect look like? It does not mean acceding to our every demand and accommodating every problem. (Though that would be fine.) It means taking our children’s needs seriously, and working in a conscientious way to find an acceptable solution. It means stepping out in front and presenting a coherent and compassionate policy rather than waiting for a problem and reacting defensively. It means treating children with special needs and their families as you would any other customer, any other worshiper, any other taxpayer, any other voter, any other community member. It means not sending out a message that says, “You know, we don’t really serve your kind here.”
Because there are a lot of “our kind,” and we are growing. We have been fragmented by our specific challenges and conflicting needs, but we now resolve to be united by our common expectation of respect. When you place an inflight snack choice above the life of an allergic child, you anger us all. When you care more about rude complaining diners than the family of a child with autism, you eject us all. When you value worshipful silence over compassion for worshipers with disabilities, you wound us all. Whether or not our children share those same disabilities, whether or not we would have made the same decisions as those parents, we still know what lack of respect looks like, and we will recognize it in your actions.
And we will act. We will remember. We will find our voice as a special-needs community, and we will stand together. We will demand respect for our children and our families, and for the adults with disabilities our children will become. You will find us to be fierce advocates. We would rather get respect without fear, but we’ll take it any way we can get it. Do the math. And do the right thing.
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If you’re the parent of a child with special needs (or a family member, friend, or well-wisher), and you feel ready to stand up for the rights of children with disabilities regardless of their specific needs, add your name to this manifesto, along with your own message, by replying to the Readers Respond page below. Can we band together for our kids?