Having young children often unwittingly places you front and centre amongst strangers in public places, especially if your child is prone to make loud pronouncements about people around her and/or decides to throw a hissy fit when you say “No” to the Smarties beckoning at the check-out counter. She may often talk in a very loud ‘whisper’ or merely ask the questions that she’s thinking. Because she needs to know the answer.
So much to see, so much to know, no time like now. I will forever be grateful to my children for continuously sculpting situations that grew within me an ability to deal with embarrassment and accept that some things are not within my orbit of control.
And then when your child is a wheelchair-user the visibility quotient sky rockets, particularly with other young children who find your child on wheels absolutely fascinating. Their bodies may have left the conversation but their eyes remain locked on your child, owl-like in their ability to head-swivel 180 degrees. And then you hear their piping voices, ‘whispers’ embarrassing a parent, needing to know the answer to a burning question:
What’s wrong with that girl? Is she sick? Why is a dog tied to her wheelchair?
And my personal favourite from an incredulous 5-year-old which had us howling with laughter: Look at that big girl in a pram!
Although a wheelchair does not define who you are it is often what people look at first, before eyes travel up to see the person. And there are always questions in the eyes. Adults smile or look away and the questions are left unanswered, respecting the need to be PC and sensitive. Children are gloriously unaware of this ‘need’ and their questions don’t linger in their eyes; they seem to go directly from their brains to their lips. And then there – in public – urging an answer from somebody. Such an honest approach that has the potential to demystify; depending on whether who and how the questions are answered. The worst possible scenario is shooshing the curious kid and having them never know the answer to their burning questions. And the best person to provide an answer is the person about whom the question is posed.
We always told Chaeli that people noticing her is a good thing because they are interested in her and her unique way of moving. We explained that people chatting to her is a bridge that she can use to explain things, things that maybe only she can teach. And always to respond to the curiosity of others with a smile and an invitation to have a conversation, never to say “What are you staring at?” We encouraged Chaeli to embrace her ‘celebrity’ status of being unique, being visible and using this attention to open up the world of those who wanted to chat because if you take enough time to start and hold a conversation you never know the magical places this conversation may lead.
Twenty-six years later the same principle holds true for us: accept the power of being noticed; invite the questions that are undeniably there and make time for a conversation. Be the bridge. Grow the conversation.
Start the journey.