f you judge people, you have no time to love them.” — Mother Teresa
The definition of the word “family” is a group of two or more individuals related by birth, marriage, or adoption who live together. Family is your home away from home; when nothing else in the world seems right, you can count on your family to help you through it. According to statistics from the Federal Register, 20.9 million families have at least one member with a disability. When a family member is diagnosed, the family often experiences a huge transition to support their loved one as best as they are able.
After diagnosis, you likely hope all members of your family can support you and your exceptional individual openly. But what do you do when some relatives do not fully accept or have preconceived notions about your loved one with a disability? How do you handle the prejudice your own family may hold about your child or other household members with exceptional needs? The road to learning how to navigate the world of special needs is different from others, but at the end of the day, we all want our loved ones to be accepted and loved unconditionally — especially by those we cherish.
There are times when families face challenges and obstacles. Stress takes on a whole new level for a family, especially when you first start parenting or caregiving for a loved one with exceptional needs. Families rely on their immediate members to be a safe and helpful space. Families need support in the following:
Building their foundation
Learning about the world of special education
Learning about Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings
Creating a life plan
Securing the correct aids that will support a child
Securing Social Support Programs for the whole family
When a family looks to their immediate members, they look for the peace of a solid foundation of understanding — that once we go home and close the doors to the world, our true family will safeguard us with love. There will be times some family members will believe stereotypes about or discriminate against your loved one with special needs. You may try to educate them, but their opinions might remain firmly biased. For many years I wondered why my children were not invited to certain birthday parties, sleepovers, and events. A relative later disclosed that their spouse feared my son with exceptional needs would set the house on fire, wander off, or somehow endanger their children’s lives. It almost felt as if they thought autism was a contagious disease you could contract by being close to each other. As I listened closely, this candid conversation over pancakes and coffee continued with blatant prejudice. I gradually discovered this relative was not the only one; half of my family shared the same hurtful sentiments as the person sitting across the breakfast table from me.
I remember thinking about a passage from The Everyday Advocate by Areva Martin. When she and her spouse realized how others viewed their child, they made the valorous decision to say farewell to those who held preconceived notions about their child and would not accept him. I remember the quote read, “They wouldn’t be seeing the Martins.” I realized that quote was a symbol of advocacy for their child and family. It signified finding internal and external solidarity. All parents desire their children to live a happy, healthy life with love and acceptance.
Acceptance is defined as the action or process of being received as adequate or suitable; it is a sense of inclusion. We are all united in togetherness. As painful as it is to say goodbye to relatives who do not accept your loved one with exceptional needs, it is necessary to do if you intend to advocate for their right to thrive, grow, and be themselves.
Bidding farewell to those who do not accept your exceptional family members can be difficult, but fate will bring you to meet those who will love and cherish them entirely. While navigating the world of special education, I found support and camaraderie from parents and families whose journeys resembled my own. We attended each other’s birthday parties, quinceañeras, IEP meetings, camping trips, and sports games. The second family I found became my tribe, making me truly realize the importance of the phrase, “Friends are the family we choose for ourselves.” In times of struggle, they were there. Together we weathered challenges, obstacles, milestones, and loss.
When encountering a family member who has already judged your exceptional loved one, try following some tips on approaching the situation.
Sit down and talk
Sometimes sitting down with relatives and addressing things requires you to explain what a disability is and how they can support you if they are willing to be an understanding part of the family. People are often unknowledgeable about specific disabilities and might believe stereotypes as fact, but they may change their views if they are willing to listen and learn.
Establish a support circle
Meet individuals who are receptive to you and your family member with exceptional needs. Build a bridge that will allow positive people to enter your life to help support, nurture, and grow with your family.
Acceptance if you need to walk away
If having a serious discussion does not go well, and your relatives stick to their harmful views and biases, it is time to accept them for who they are and say goodbye. There is nothing wrong with choosing to protect your loved one. There is no shame in closing the door on someone who does not love your family unconditionally.
Take the time to heal
As devasting as it can be to know some members of your family do not cherish your exceptional individual, it is okay to take some time to heal. Healing is the process of regaining your strength after a difficult encounter physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. When you heal, you allow yourself to reflect on the experience, learn from it, and grow.
In closing, true family loves us unconditionally. They accept us inside and out. They are our peace, our foundation — the ones who see us for who we are. Accepting one means accepting their bonds as well, and in doing so, we can all love each other.
You owe yourself and your loved ones a healthy exceptional needs journey:
· Learn more about finding services for your family
· Find parent support
· Attend workshops and group meetings
· Learn how to navigate the special education realm
· Plot your route on the road to advocacy
· Meet individuals who will encourage you, not discourage you!
The Everyday Advocate
National Bureau of Transportation
Check out magazine Exceptional Needs Today www.exceptionalneedstoday.com