Even though I was young, I remember the first time I met what would become my "second family" on their grandparents' farm, which was "up the lane" from my house. As I have aged and my memory has been inundated with Spongebob's cackle, Dora's Spanish lessons, and teeny bopper show laugh tracks, I don't remember too many details of that first meeting all those years ago. Long forgotten are such specifics as what the girls were wearing, if they had lost any baby teeth yet, if they were nice, shy, or funny, but, one memory that is still engrained in my aging brain, is the image of their father. Yes, even after years of Spongebob, Thomas the Tank Engine, Dora, and the Teletubbies, my brain can still see him on the wooden porch smiling and sitting...in his wheelchair and I'm sure like any child, I stared.
Although I had been raised properly and told not to stare at people's differences, I'm sure I did. It was the first time I had ever seen anyone missing limbs and in a wheelchair and like most children, I did not do everything I was told. Sadly, even though adults know better, sometimes they don't do as they are told either. And sometimes their words, their actions hurt.
My neighbor was a war hero who lost both legs in a trench in Vietnam. Prosthetics have come a long way in the past 40 years. Back in the 70's there were no fancy, high tech, bionic looking legs that could be covered with a pair of pants and a matching shoe, so, many disabled vets returned home from Vietnam in wheelchairs. Their differences, their "disabilities" visible for all to see.
Even as a child, it didn't take me long to realize that there was so much more to my neighbor than his wheelchair. His disabilty paled in comparison to his abilities. After awhile, I no longer saw the wheelchair, I only saw him.
Not long ago, when I was discussing Ryan's autism and a particularly bad day he recently experienced, someone (who happens to be familiar with the physical difficulties a person in a wheelchair endures, but, takes little time to understand autism), said to me, "I don't really feel sorry for Ryan. At least he's not in a wheelchair." Wow.
I was initially dumbfounded and mumbled something like, "you can't even compare the two". Looking back, I wish I would have had an apple or an orange (wouldn't have mattered at all) to shove in their mouth and said all of this....
Yes, Ryan can easily jump up and sprint down our stairs (he actually sort of crashes down the stairs) when it's time for a few Vanilla Oreos without any special accomodations in our home. However, Ryan does need accomodations when it comes to learning at school because although he "looks fine" his brain processes information differently.
Ryan has two perfect working legs that can walk, run, and jump. He is strong and more than capable of running away from the bully in the school yard. Yet, when Ryan was being bullied for two years, due to his language deficits, he was unable to find the words to tell me.
Although Ryan could physically run up to a group of friends on the playground and say, "Hey guys, want to play some basketball?", he doesn't and chances are pretty high that he won't. Communicating with friends and initiating a conversation is very difficult due to the way autism impacts his social skills and his social awareness.
Even though Ryan is big enough and strong enough to knock over several defensive lineman and could physically become an outstanding football star, he won't. The pads, the equipment, the shouting and even the grass are too much for his overloaded sensory system to handle.
An autism diagnosis may be a disability that you can't see, but, for Ryan, that's ok because just like anyone with any type of disability, be it an apple or an orange, Ryan wants you to accept him, to see him and to see his abilities and not his disability.
Yes, sadly, sometimes even adults "don't know better" and they say ignorant and hurtful things. I'm sure just like Ryan, my neighbor had heard his fair share over the years.
And although my neighbor may have spent the past 45 years with a disability which required a wheelchair to get through life, that did not keep him from living. He may have gone through most of his adult life unable to stand on his own, but, his abilities, his successes and his happines stand for themselves. The proof lies in the faces of his beautiful children, grandchildren and great grandchild. I bet none of them see the wheelchair either.
When it comes to disabilities, comparing one disability to another is truly comparing apples to oranges. An apple is an apple. An orange is an orange. If all you ever concern yourself with is what those fruits are labeled and how they look on the outside without bothering to take the time to see what's on the inside, then you will miss the incomparable essence of them both.