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When a child with a disability reaches adulthood, feelings about acceptance by others may linger. If young people learn to accept themselves during their formative years, explore interests, form friendships, accomplish, interact, and socialize at age-appropriate stages, it can help empower a sense of belonging when they’ve grown.

For adults with Cerebral Palsy, acceptance begins early

Most people think of childhood as a time that is carefree; a finite portion of life when there are few worries or responsibilities.

When we reminisce as adults, we tend not to think of the challenging aspects of being a child, but we do remember if we were teased, when we weren’t asked to a birthday party, when we were left out of a group’s activities, or when we were last to be selected for dodge ball. We remember, because the feelings of being not being included – or socially – accepted by our peers made us feel bad.

Add a disability into a child’s life, and it’s easy to understand how a child can feel somehow separate from others, different. Doubts about whether they are accepted by their peers – or whether they ever will fit into a world that seems designed for the able-bodied – can arise for many reasons. And feelings of alienation that begin on a playground can linger well into adulthood, when a person is seeking to build a life of his or her own by pursuing an education, a career, friendships, and a life partner.

It’s no wonder children with disabilities feel out-of-sorts socially. At home, they may not be able to play and interact in the same ways as their siblings do, especially when their days are filled with after school medical appointments and therapies. At school, a they may spend part of their day in specialized classrooms learning skills pertinent to their disability, while other students are enjoying a more conventional education and recess.

Even when transported to and from school, they may be required to ride in buses equipped to load and secure wheelchairs, instead of on buses with their peers. Out in the world, they are often conspicuous, less likely to stop off at the coffee shop if its not as convenient, or too time consuming. When those circumstances exist, it’s enough to make anyone feel as though they will never fit in with others.

Here’s a secret about the origins of social acceptance: It’s less about being accepted by others, and more a reflection on how a person accepts themselves. It begins to take root in early childhood and develops within a child as their personality and socialization – and experiences and opportunities – help frame their self-image and confidence. The genesis of finding peace within oneself and with others – and the ability to bond, make friends, and develop professional relationships – begins with one’s own self-concept. It radiates outward and can greatly enhance a person’s ability to be accepted by others. Granted, disability awareness still plays an integral role.

For parents, that’s good news because a child’s self-concept is something that they can influence as a child ages. Also, if a child has lingering feelings of alienation into adulthood, actions can be taken to quell those feelings.

Accentuating the positive

When an adult goes out into the marketplace to find employment, they’re told they must sell themselves. That is a simple way of telling the potential new hire that they must explain what their skills are and why they would benefit the employer.

The act of selling oneself as an employee can be easily achieved if a person has confidence. Luckily, confidence is learned behavior developed in childhood, bred from accomplishment. When an adult, especially one that worries about acceptance by others, is talking to a hiring manager, it may feel strikingly similar to the emotions he or she had as a child when they tried to talk to other children at school. They were asking, if not implicitly, to be accepted on their merits.

A child with disability goes through life’s ages and stages, similar to an able-bodied child. Principles of socialization still apply. For example, a toddler learns to play alongside other children. Soon they explore the opportunity to share with others. In playing with others they learn social norms of interaction. When playing at activities that interest them, they bond with other children with similar interests. When honing their interests they accomplish tasks and goals which allow them to gain confidence. Confidence breeds self-esteem, especially when their peers acknowledge their special talents. Young adults with like interests grow up together, hang out, communicate, and bond.

Children – with or without disability – require the opportunity to become socially well-adjusted to the best of their abilities. Early on, they discover what’s unique about their abilities and their personalities. To accomplish this, the child needs opportunities to explore their interests and share their abilities. They need to play alongside and with others to become acclimated with social norms. The opportunities to become part of a larger group – whether in the classroom, or as part of a smaller group of children that play a sport or take part in an activity – the better. Socialized children have a rapport with their peers, whereas sheltered children have a separation from their peers. Children with disability will require the ability to be successfully socialized with other children with like disability, with able-bodied peers, and with adults.

Children who often carry their interests, activities and hobbies into adulthood, may find it easier to connect and bond with other adults who share similar interests.

Sometimes, this works out well – a child has a new friend, joins a new group, or finds a new job. But, at times, an individual will experience rejection.

To become a happy, well-adjusted adult, a child must learn to cope with rejection. It’s something everyone – not just a person with disabilities – encounters. It’s a part of life; it does not mean that a person can never achieve acceptance.

For children, it’s important to learn that rejection from another person says more about the individual doing the rejecting than it does about a child wanting acceptance. Often a child will feel they are being rejected, but what they may not realize is the other child may not know how to approach them. Able-bodied children are often told “not to stare” at a person with disability, for instance, so they turn away. These are teachable moments, lost. If an able-bodied person is taught by example how to approach another and has awareness of a person’s abilities and challenges, they are more likely to feel comfortable in conversing.

The more that point is understood, the better prepared an adult will be if he or she experiences rejection. They’ll be able to shrug off the disappointment and move forward confidently understanding that others may not be rejecting them as a person, but instead deficit in understanding the process of engagement.

Having something in common and something to talk about are two aspects of bonding with others. As positive dialog takes place between a young person and a potential friend, the more likely it is that both children will see what makes them similar instead of what makes them different. The confidence that provides can easily translate into adult interactions.

Debunking myths

Children without disabilities often have misconceptions about children with special needs that, however inadvertently, put a child with disabilities in the position of an outsider.

This is because children are receiving too many mixed messages; they hear “don’t stare” so they look away, yet those promoting disability etiquette stress not to look away from a child with Cerebral Palsy, but to offer a greeting and a smile. Because a child with special needs may speak or communicate differently, or use a wheelchair or braces, it may also add a layer of mystery.

Depending on the age of able-bodied children and child with special needs, neither may have the emotional maturity to sort these issues out. It’s up to the adults in the room – parents, teachers, counselors and caregivers – to explain to children that there are many things that they may have in common.

If they see other children interacting with a child in a wheelchair, they may be more apt to join. If they understand why a child communicates or walks differently, they may feel more comfortable in their abilities to converse with, and play with, a child with disability. The onus lies with parents, teachers, coaches, peers, and even the individual with Cerebral Palsy to bridge the knowledge and comfort gaps, naturally.

Children with special needs are first and foremost children – they like the same music, the same video games, and have the same wishes and dreams. If children have a sense that it’s okay to talk to someone that appears to be a little different, they will soon come to realize that they’re not that different at all. When this occurs, it will prevent feelings of loneliness and isolation that children with special needs often experience.

Teachers can play a vital role in promoting awareness and acceptance of people with disabilities, and in encouraging children to include their classmates with disabilities. Inviting a person with a disability to speak to the class, developing activities that include all children, and teaching children about compassion and the vitality of differences are just some ways that teachers can promote awareness and acceptance in the classroom.

With the help of her colleagues, one New Mexico special education teacher developed a seven-week inclusion program that included both children with and without disabilities; the project culminated with a play and puppet show performed by both groups. Activities ranged from a discussion period about how children felt about disabilities to inviting guest speakers, each covering one aspect of disability and special education, to talk with the students. Programs like these can go far in teaching all children about accepting oneself and others, with and without a disability.

Another myth is that when a child with special needs feels like an outsider, it is because of his or her disability. Although that’s sometimes true, there are often other factors at work. If a child sits on the sidelines during activities that would allow him or her to develop age appropriate social skills and make friends, the more intense these feelings are likely to be – they are in essence being kept out of the activities, so it is not surprising that years later when they want to participate, they feel like an outsider.

If this occurs during an extended period, the child may not have had the opportunity to develop the skills and confidence he or she will need in the future. It can prevent the formation of interpersonal relationships. It can interfere with how a person functions at school and work, or lives a happy and fulfilling life as an adult.

Though it’s best that feelings of isolation be conquered during childhood, adults with disabilities can take steps to come out of their shell. But seeking acceptance and companionship means that an individual must work past the fear of rejection, or feelings of inadequacy. To be accepted, a person should first accept him or herself.

Equally important to obtaining inclusion is to be mindful of the other person’s apprehension. While a person with a disability may fear they may not be accepted, it doesn’t always occur to them that the other person has fears, as well. Should I approach the person? What do I say? What if they are non-verbal, how do I communicate? What if I hurt their feelings? What if I say something insensitive? What if I hurt them? What can they do? What can’t they do? These are questions the other person will have that usually go unanswered, simply from a fear of not knowing what to ask or how to say it.

To bridge the gap, a confident adult with a disability might simply ask, “I see you are researching trains and planes. Two topics I love. Do you mind if I join you?” If the person looks apprehensive, be prepared to explain “I talk through this computer, and it might take me longer, but I’m just like you.”

Emerging from shyness means being assertive – people shouldn’t wait for someone to ask if they can take part in activities. Often people are surprised at how often people say “no, please do” when asked, “Do you mind if I join you?” It also means that a person may have to cope with rejection, which means they must be willing to say to themselves, “Okay, it didn’t work out this time, but it doesn’t mean I won’t get a yes the next time. And, it certainly doesn’t mean I’m less of a person because that person rejected me.”

Taking the first step in seeking acceptance can only come after one has accepted his or herself – and that’s the most difficult part. Gaining acceptance from others is part of a process – but one that will lead to all of the joys and successes. Parents can do much to ensure that their child develops socially according to all the age-appropriate stages – mainly giving their child with disability opportunities to play with others, develop interests and hobbies, accomplish, and interact within social norms. Teachers can promote group activities, model successful interaction, and monitor child play. The tools exist and are within reach, albeit a little creativity and forethought may be required.