by Darryll Sherman
My son, Christopher, is disabled. Although 21, he’s about the size of a 6-year-old, with the functioning mind of a toddler. He can only walk with assistance, his main ride is a wheelchair, and he doesn’t feed himself. Thankfully he eats regular food, but we feed him everything. While he uses the toilet well, scheduling is important, so he wears diapers full-time. He doesn’t talk, but makes enough noises that we can tell if he’s happy, hungry or not feeling well. We’re fortunate that for the most part, he is healthy.
Happiness in life for him is simple. He loves to eat, laugh, and play with toys. He loves to swim (kicking around hanging on a “noodle” while being attended to), watch bright lights (perhaps fuzzy for him), and watch fireworks.
Being the parent of a disabled child causes me to see life differently. I’ve had to accept that people react inappropriately when they see him since he’s different. They make assumptions based on what they see and think.
In 2009 we took Christopher to a local County Fair. He likes the animals, loves to watch the lights and rides, and likes the bright, fun environment. Near the evening’s end my wife and I were pushing him through the games area to the exit.
We tried hard to avoid eye contact with all the carnies challenging us to knock over lead-laden pins or throw darts at balloons. As we kept our pace up and ignored them, we heard one guy calling after us. He continued to yell, “Hey! Wait a minute!” Glancing back, we saw he was actually coming after us with something in his hands.
He caught up to us.
Grinning widely, he said, “Here, I think your son dropped this.” He held out a silly stuffed animal we’d never owned. We explained that another child must’ve dropped it. With twinkling eyes, he winked and said, “Here, I’m sure this belongs to your son,” and pressed it into our son’s lap.
Still smiling, he walked away to our joint “Thank you.” Time stood still as my eyes filled with tears and I realized what had just happened.
I’d been as guilty as anyone at stereotyping people who work carnivals, “the carnies,” as unclean, sleazy, chain-smoking, etc. Perhaps there are elements of truth to those stereotypes, however, hundreds of people that evening had gawked at or ignored our son or tried to avoid us.
Yet this guy chased us down to give Christopher a gift. He didn’t have to. I’d never suspected “someone like him” would do such a thing. The simplest of gestures from one person showed me the error of my ways and reminded me to judge not, lest I be judged.
That ugly little stuffed orange orangutan sits in a prominent place in my son’s room. It poignantly reminds me to not judge someone from their outward appearance, and to not make assumptions based on who they are and what they do.