Those with special needs must have our compassion

COMPASS: Other points of view

By DENIELLE BALDWINJuly 18, 2012 

Sometimes, things just fall in your lap. They are signs. This sign was about two people I love very deeply. Neither can speak, so I have to.

I took a group of boys, ages 10-15, go-karting. This included my son, foster son, a cousin's son visiting from Outside and two nephews. They had an absolute blast! In between snapping photos and shooting video, it did my heart good simply watching them.

When we got in the car to go home, my son told me that my nephew said one of the workers asked him "Is your brother stupid?" Without hesitation, I turned the engine off and got out of the car. In support, my son followed. I found the manager and relayed the information to him. He called over the worker, a teen, who denied it. The teen asked if he could come talk to my nephew. I walked him over to the car where he proceeded to apologize. I got back in the car and started the engine. I paused, turned it off and got out of the car to again find the manager. My son followed.

The manager was by the ticket booth talking with the teen. I approached them and asked why the teen couldn't just own up. Why lie? Self-preservation, I'm sure. As much as I was upset with the teen's rudeness, I was more upset that the manager didn't seem to give a rip. He dismissed it by saying, "I wasn't out there. I didn't see it." I didn't move. This wasn't about me. It was about the two who couldn't speak.

I told the manager that I wasn't trying to get something for free. A family outing had been ruined by the insensitivity of one of his employees. We had spent more than $80 in a brief period and everyone's moods had been changed by one comment. The fun was gone.

The manager disappeared into the booth for what seemed like forever. I wondered if he was hoping I would give up and walk away. I stood there. So did my son. Eventually, he came out with a book of tickets. I thanked him and went back to the car and gave them to my nephew. I drove home with tears rolling down my cheek.

In my head, I composed a letter to the editor. As I drove, I wondered, "Would anybody care? Would it make a difference?" When we got home, I became absorbed in the task of finding old family photos for the visiting relative. Halfway through one tub, a yellow newspaper clipping fell in my lap. It was a sign.

After the kids had gone to bed, I unfolded the clipping. It was a Compass: Points of View from the Community ("Son is far from perfect but dearly loved"). My sister, Deneen Bozeman, had written it about six years ago. We had been to a fast food playland with our kids and a parent made an extremely rude comment about Deneen's son, Jathan. He's not stupid, as this woman and the go-kart worker assumed. He is autistic.

Being largely non-verbal, Jathan was not able to communicate that he had to go to the bathroom. He went in the playland. The woman shrieked in dismay. Despite the hurt and embarrassment, Deneen saw it as an opportunity to educate. She was a gifted teacher who taught in the district for 20 years and advocated for special needs children. In the Compass column, she wrote:

I apologized profusely (to the parent) while trying to assist my son. After I got everything cleaned up, I wanted to apologize again and offer her an explanation. By this time, however, she had gathered up her family as well as several other families by whisking them all out the door. She wasn't interested in an explanation. I sat there with my son and wept. It's not the first time I have cried in public. We've endured cold stares and mean comments before.

My son has a long walk ahead of him, social graces and expectations that he somehow must learn and understand. He's my son, and I will walk every step with him.

Three years after writing the column, Deneen died of an aggressive melanoma. July 14 would have been her 46th birthday. What better gift than for our community to give what she asked for in the Compass article:

I'm hoping our community will also step in and help all special needs children with their own individual walks. My heart ached as I watched my son sitting alone on the equipment peering out the window. Two years of learning how to play and interact with other children and people and here he is again . . . alone.

Deneen will not be able to walk every step with her son. She will not be able to speak up and shield Jathan from the cold stares and mean comments.

Sometimes things just fall in your lap. They are signs. Deneen gave me a sign that day and I knew I had to speak for her -- and for her son. Will you listen? Perhaps today or tomorrow you will see an autistic or special needs child. Will you shriek in judgment and walk away? Or, in kindness and compassion, will you walk a step with Jathan, and others like him?

Denielle Baldwin lives in Anchorage.

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