Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Being the "most" Differently-Abled

I know I have spoken a lot about Charmaine, one of my very good friends before, but I don't know if I have ever spoken much about Bri. That's because Bri is different - I met her in the capacity of a volunteer at special school, and she was a student. But now, I know her family and I am her carer, aide, BFF - whatever you want to call it. She has my heart and also has me wrapped around her little finger - we BOTH know it. There are very few other people who I would watch Play School on YouTube for hours with - and recite the episode by heart for.

Bri graduated from high school last year. She is 18 years old; a legal adult. For so many people, this is when life really begins and it can absolutely be true for Bri too - but it just needs takes a certain deal of planning and processing. Some things that may seem quite simple are actually huge achievements. There is absolutely no reason why Bri cannot live a full and rich life...we sometimes just do this in a different way from the average Joe.

Firstly, delighting in the everyday. Shopping trips are not routine or mundane - but they are exciting. Bri is a very visual person and going to the shops presents her with a lot of visual stimulus, it is a chance for choice making and communication skills, it is a chance for shopping and spending some of her money, it is a chance of independence away from her parents and it is a chance for her and me to hang out together at the shops - as lots of people our age do. We get coffee or juice. If we stay at home, we can always find something that we enjoy doing - from arts and crafts, swimming, going on a walk and listening to Taylor Swift.

Recently, Bri and I went to a dance class that I have assisted at for a while. It's called "Differently-Abled Dance". Knowing Bri loves to dance, loves music and loves having a social group (which she has been missing a bit since she graduated), I thought she would really enjoy it. I knew it would also be challenging for her and her anxiety. I wasn't wrong on either count. What I didn't expect was how the other students would react, I hadn't thought about it much.

Most of our students have an intellectual disability or language processing disorder of some description. I think a few have Autism too. A couple of students have Down's Syndrome and one has a mild physical disability, as a result of having a stroke as a baby. The students' verbal abilities range; however, there was nobody who was non-verbal like Briana, or with the same physical disabilities as Briana - indeed, there are no other students in wheelchairs (yet, anyway).

The reactions were varied. One of the students, the oldest one,  walked in and past us as if nothing has changed - as though Bri had always been there. I introduced Bri, and the student's mother told her to say hello. She did and kept walking. I think this student had gone to a special school where she would've known many students in wheelchairs and so it wouldn't have been unusual to her to see someone in a wheelchair.

Three of the other girls arrived at the same time and stopped dead, and stared. I introduced Bri to her. They said hi, shyly. But they weren't sure what to do next, so I encouraged them to go into the studio and go see the other teacher. Bri and I were waiting in the reception, because Bri was feeling a bit nervous as I explained.

The next two girls arrived. One of them smiled excitedly and said "Bri!" and Bri's face lit up too as she walked over. The girl's mum said "Oh, yes, it's Bri!" - as it turned out, the girls had gone to primary school together. The other girl responded negatively - seeming scared or, more likely, jealous.

I sat outside for a few more minutes with Bri, showing her a few clips of Play School to calm her down, and one of our girls came out to see us. She asked what I was showing her, so I said she could watch too. Next she asked me how old Bri was and from there, the questions came a mile a minute. Was I her sister? Did I live at her house? Who did her hair? Does she like play school? Why was she in a wheelchair? Can't she talk? I answered all the questions simply and truthfully and then we went into the studio.

The students were quite fascinated by Bri except for the one who had reacted negatively and the one who hadn't even noticed her. Her old school mate was all over her like a rash. Then the student who was reacting negatively asked me an interesting question, it really took me about:

"What happened to her?"

I said, "Pardon?" because I really didn't understand. I wasn't offended. But I was a surprised to hear the question put like that.

So she said again "Why is she in a wheelchair? What happened to her?"

I said what I had said to the other girls, that this is how Bri was born. The student asked her question again and I gave the same answer. She thought for a moment and then said how her grandpa was now in a wheelchair because he got old, and her question of "what happened to her?" made sense. To her, people go into a wheelchair for a reason - that we all start off walking, essentially. Next week I think I might say that she was sick in her mum's tummy and so she was born this way. Or I may stick to that she was born this way. Or maybe everyone's curiousity has been satisfied.

The class passed well. My most curious student kept telling me when Bri was enjoying herself. I assured her that in a few weeks she would be able to understand when Bri was saying yes or no with her eyes. The other students also liked seeing when Bri was happy.

Once the class got there very natural curiousity out, they were excited to have Bri. There curiousity was not a bad thing. They had questions, I answered them, and now Bri has been to her very first dance class at 18 years old and is now finding her new social group.