When parents teach their kids “othering” attitudes towards disabled people.
Between the ages of 9 and 13, I lived next door to a young girl named Anna. Anna had a 2 year old cousin, Ashley, who was a vent dependent high level quadriplegic due to a horrific accident where she fell off the back of a couch and got wedged between the couch and the wall. (Abuse by her father was suspected; they think he pushed her, I don’t remember if that was true or not.) Her injury was very similar to Christopher Reeve’s.
At first I was fascinated by Ashley’s wheelchair and ventilator tube because I had never known somebody could be paralyzed like that and need help just to breathe. Ashley’s nurse was very kind about answering my questions.
If Anna wasn’t home, I would play with Ashley. I sang silly songs, made faces at her (she made them back), I made her stuffed animals “dance” and “kiss” her face (she loved that) and I would read to her while showing her pictures from the books by her bed. Sometimes I “helped” her color by holding her little fist around a crayon and guiding her hand over a coloring book. I actually discovered she could keep her fingers closed if I wrapped them around the crayon, but it was a very loose grip and her hands never improved beyond that. I let Ashley pick the colors– she raised her eyebrows and smiled real big for “yes” and pouted her bottom lip out for “no” and that’s how she told me which crayons she wanted.
Playing with Ashley got to be normal to me. I understood that she was disabled, but she was also a two year old girl just like any other and the only difference was she couldn’t move or breathe on her own. I noticed that other kids didn’t go over to interact with her if she was brought outside in her wheelchair. The adults with her would entertain her instead.
One day, I was playing peekaboo with Ashley when my dad came outside. He got really mad at me! I didn’t know what I did wrong when he demanded I go in the house.
He proceeded to tell me “You shouldn’t play with a crippled child like that. What if something happens to her? You’ll get blamed!”
I don’t remember what I said in protest, but I know I said “Dad, she’s a kid like anybody else!”
He said, “NO, she’s not. She’s different. She’s broken and hurt. Feel sorry for her, and don’t play with her anymore.”
I cried in my room for a long while. Then I went back out to see if Anna was home. She wasn’t, but Ashley was inside in bed. I played with her till Anna came home, then we went out into her back yard and swung on the swings.
The next day, my dad caught me playing with Ashley again. I was putting flowers in her hair (careful that they didn’t have loose petals that could fall on her trach or the vent tubes). He was SO MAD that he grounded me from going outside for a long time, can’t remember how long.
I questioned why it was “so wrong” to play with another kid. Dad kept insisting that I didn’t “need” to play with a child “like that” who would never have a normal life.
Ashley ended up having to go back into the hospital shortly after that, and I can’t remember what became of her beyond that because I didn’t see her again. All I remember is being devastated that my dad didn’t want me to be friends with a very visibly disabled toddler.
Her name was Ashley, and I never forgot her. I hope she’s still alive. She’ll be in her 20′s by now if she’s still out there somewhere. I think of her from time to time. I’m probably a very vague memory to her…and I hope I’m a good one. I was the kid who played with her when nobody else wanted to. Probably because other kids had parents like my dad who forbade it.
The question is…why? My dad told me he was afraid something bad would happen to Ashley while I was playing with her. I get that he was worried about being sued or something, but I feel like there was more to it than that.
He was “othering” Ashley as ‘unacceptably disabled’ and wanted me to treat her like that, too. I refused. I got in a lot of trouble for refusing. I don’t regret it. I was her friend and I made her smile.
Ashley, if you’re out there, I never thought you were broken.