We were driving to the school one afternoon last week, when out of the blue Davionn exclaimed, “Mommy, your friend is a superhero isn’t he?!” It was more of a statement of adoring revelation than an inquiry.
When I asked who he was talking about… he responded, “You know, your friend in Professor X’s chair.”
He had recently met a friend and coworker of mine, who happens to be an amputee. Although the kids have had plenty of exposure to people who use wheelchairs, they have not yet met anyone who is so efficiently, independently mobile without it; and having already had a conversation with them marveling at his singular-leg agility, I knew immediately who he was referring to.
“Oh, Bob? I don’t know. He might be. You know superheroes hide their true identity.”
Then he boasted, “Yeah, I knew he was one though because he had his leg up in his pants. He can do that with his legs and arms, and then he has robot arms and legs like a cyborg, that come out… and I think his chair is a rocket! No one can defeat him.”
Interestingly enough, Bob had not been wearing a prosthetic and I cannot think of a time Davi has ever seen one.
So I asked, “How do you know all that about him?” And he retorted, “Why else would he have his leg up in his pants? Silly, mommy.”
Although his reasoning was adorable and mildly entertaining, I thought it was an opportune time to talk to Davi about the reality of ‘robot’ arms and legs… and what he presumed were ‘retractable’ appendages. I asked him, “Do you think it might be possible that he doesn’t have his leg pulled up in his pants and he might just have only one leg?”
He thought about it for a minute and then said, “Yes. He’s a superhero though. Some people can just have one leg because they don’t need two. They just get special power buttons.”
He had effectively distracted me from the point I was trying to make.
I asked, (now laughing) “What do the power buttons do?” And quick as a whip he retorted “Well, I don’t know. I have two legs!”
He was quiet for a moment, and then I heard laser sounds erupting from behind my seat. I glanced back into his car seat to investigate. He had his arms pulled up in his shirt and he was blasting things out the windows with invisible robot arms.
He has always been obsessed with superheroes and superpowers, so his fascination came as no surprise… what I was in awe of was that what a lot of people would presume small children would find confusing or scary because it is different, he immediately interpreted as meaning Bob possessed supernatural capabilities.
I thought this point of view was pretty exceptional, but it wasn’t until a few days later I processed how innocent and outstanding a child’s perspective is when you realize the difference in what they see and perceive between strengths and weaknesses.
While at work, Bob was hopping for a moment between the holiday rush of customers, when a small boy excitedly broke away from his mother’s grasp and ran up next to him, where he started laughing and jumping alongside. He was totally enthralled with the game but his parents appeared appalled, hastily tearing him away before Bob saw.
Just as they went to scold the boy, Bob caught a drift of what was happening and turned to smile at the child, inviting him to bounce along with a few more playful hops. Fortunately, the parents relaxed.
In this particular case, the boy was oblivious to anything but a bouncing Bob… and I’m pretty certain if the circumstances had been different, they would have found the child’s antics cute and funny, instead of mortifying.
Although I can appreciate the concern that their children do not mock or appear to antagonize others, at the same time, I think it is important to not subject anyone to the same humiliation by seeing them as a subject of it.
There is a societal stigma around what we define as a handicap (a term that originated as giving an advantage to equalize the likelihood of winning, used loosely now instead as a disadvantage), how we view and react to it. Anything that falls outside of the physical standard of ‘normal’ is readily labeled as inept. Once a label is applied, we are comfortable putting on our sympathy goggles, blinding us to individual strengths.
When we behave this way, we risk hindering our children’s ability to appreciate innate differences and overcoming adversity by teaching them to divert their eyes and feel sorry for others. Although well intended, it is still a judgement that discredits ability.
In our home, the word ‘disabled’ is not part of the vocabulary. We prefer ‘differently-abled’… as we, very well, all are. I have always thought that answering my children’s questions with simple, honest explanations about the vast array of appearances and abilities they are bound to encounter, was the best way to teach them to see the person and all of their capabilities, not their nuances and presumed helplessness.
Acknowledging differences and celebrating possibilities: it turns out, that’s how children are programmed to see the world anyway. Innocence is, technically, ignorance… however, the key to maintaining your innocence (tactfully and guiltlessly) is to shed naivety without absorbing prejudice.
Now if we could all resort back to seeing something super in everyone we meet, and suspecting that any one person might be a hero… we might just be able to make some progress towards restoring humanity.
“Everything is theoretically impossible until it is done.” Robert A. Heinlein