The One Thing You Should Do When You Encounter Someone "Different"
Ever since my daughter was born 2.5 years ago with a severe skin condition (which causes her skin to be thick, deep red and flaky, and leaves her with very little hair), I have emerged as an advocate for visual difference, striving to show others how beautiful differences can be. And one question that I have received over and over is "what should we do when we see someone with a visual difference?"
I thought about all of the various ways people have approached Brenna and reacted to her. And I asked dozens of other families and friends who have children with special needs/physical differences.
And there were a lot of different answers - some appreciate questions, while others don't want their kids to have to field questions all day long. But I think everyone's preference can be summed up with one main action.
When you meet, encounter or see someone who looks different, you should do one thing:
Treat them as you would anyone else.
Smile and say hi.
Tell the parents their baby is adorable.
Tell the child you like their Superman t-shirt.
Hold the door open.
Look them in the eye.
And realize that although you may be curious about why they look the way they do, it doesn't matter. Because they are just people, like me and you. And the way any of us looks is not important, it does not define us and it should not affect the way we treat each other.
I believe that God made us each purposefully, uniquely and beautifully.
It truly makes the world a better place for all kids when we are proactive in teaching our children about differences and what makes each of us unique and special. They take their cue from you in many situations, so instead of frantically trying to shush them when they ask about someone's appearance (we can hear that, by the way), confidently explain "that's just how she looks, just like you have brown eyes and freckles."
If they have more questions, you can say "we can talk about it more later, so that I can answer all of your questions when we have more time." Honestly, when you get embarrassed and flustered and practically cover up your kid's mouth to stop the questions, it makes me embarrassed too.
I've had people tell me that they feel awkward around someone with a visual difference or disability, because they don't know if they should bring it up, ask about it, or if it'd be "more rude" to act like they don't notice it.
Try to think of it like this: say you have this amazing head of thick, long, curly hair. Everywhere you go, every day, people are commenting about your hair, asking about your hair, giving you advice about your hair.
Wouldn't you be pretty sick of talking about your hair? Wouldn't you want people to realize there is so much more to you than your hair?
Society is much kinder about good hair than it is about visual difference, but still - there is so much more to our children than their skin, their wheelchair, their birthmark, their dwarfism, their Down syndrome. It's OK to not talk about their "hair." It's OK to not focus on their "hair."
I encourage you, instead, to focus on them as a person.
I think once you start treating people with disabilities and differences as you would anyone else, you'll realize that indeed they are just like anyone else - with unique passions, interests, personalities and many gifts to offer the world.