Sallybug — that is the nickname a nurse gave to my twin sister when she was born because she was so tiny. Sally was born with many special needs, from complications with her heart to losing the ability to walk without a walker. Sally’s handicaps help define her because they are embodied parts of her identity, but they are also not all she is. Bug is so much more than a handicapped girl with a wheelchair.
Young children, especially the ones under the age of four, are not yet well-versed in the societal brainwashing of what is “acceptable behavior.” So, when they see my sister, they do not know what to do. If she is sitting down, you might not be able to tell she has handicaps, but her walker often makes many people uncomfortable. Little kids will often stare, and some of them whisper to their mommies asking, “What’s wrong?” Others, meanwhile, might be brave enough to go up to Sally and ask directly. But then the parents would rush over, faces flushed in embarrassment as they pulled their children away, yelling at them quietly to never ask those kinds of questions, but also not explaining why.
Going to the airport with Sallybug is a really big deal for my family. Whereas you may get there an hour before your flight — we get there three hours before. Unloading the car and the walker and the wheelchair, and then going through the absolute worst part of it all — security — takes over an hour on its own. Sally often has to be taken to a separate corner of the security area for some random security guard to search her for any drugs or weapons. Often, they have no idea what her mobility issue is so they will ask her to walk through the metal detector, unaware that she cannot do that without someone helping her. Often, they take her away while the rest of us are still frantically trying to get through normal security as fast as possible only to find her gone. You have no idea how scary that is.
Most people with Sally’s level of mental and physical handicaps are very trusting of the people around them, because they are living in a very childlike state of mind. Sally is no exception — if someone comes up and tells her to follow them, she will do so blindly. That is something that keeps me and my parents up at night. And that is why we rely on you, dear reader, to help us get some sleep at night. Because we trust you to see someone like my baby sister as a person too, deserving of the same compassion you would give to anyone else.
There is no “guidebook on how to deal with handicapped people.” Some people think it is embarrassing to have their children ask my sister what is wrong with her, and others come up to us directly. I will not tell you how to feel, but often people associate handicaps with a negative image, a sense of lacking. Because that person is not fully whole and therefore is not fully a person. Let me assure you, my sassy, talk-your-ear-off sister is definitely a full person. When you see her you do not have to think of her handicap as a negative thing. You do not have to perceive a lack because there is nothing lacking in her life.
I cannot undo the damage of years upon years of people thinking about handicaps as a negative loss of humanity in a person in one article, but I can sure make you aware of it. The point of this article is not really to give you a guide on how to talk to people with special needs, because you do not need one. Just treat them like humans because that is exactly what they are. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen people try to slow their speech down or use smaller words around Bug because they thought she could not understand them. That frustrates me, but I also understand they were just trying to be accommodating.
If you see my sister around campus, which you very well might because she visits me for every choir concert, dance recital and any other excuse my mom and I think up, you should say hi to her. She would like that a lot. She is a short blondie and, of course, looks nothing like me, her older twin. She will probably be smiling and rocking her head back and forth as she listens to whatever song is stuck inside her head at the time. And she will be waiting for you to acknowledge her and say a greeting so she can smile back and ask how you are, what your major is and if you have any cheeseburgers on you because she is starving.
For those of you who go on to start families of your own one day, when you are in the grocery store or at school or in the airport and your little one tugs on your sleeve and asks, “What’s wrong with that girl over there?” you do not have to feel embarrassed. Instead, you can start up a conversation with them about the beautiful differences and diversity amongst all the people on our planet. About how everyone is different in their own way, and for some people that means they have a different skin color than you, and for some people that means they pray to a different god than you do, and for some people that means they walk in a different way than you do.