We All Have Special Needs

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

When I learned the theme of this issue ofColumbus Parent, a long-ago incident burst into clarity in my memory.

Many years ago, under the program Artists in Schools, two friends and I were presenting creative movement and dance sessions in one of the Columbus schools focused on children with "special needs." At that time, the term was children with "handicaps." The students in this school had severe "handicaps," many of them living with almost indescribable medical challenges.

At that time, classes from another nearby school often joined them for the arts performances. That day, a third-grade class of "typically developed" children became part of the audience for our presentation, surrounded by wheelchairs, crutches, devices to support bodies that could not support themselves, etc. Apparently the teacher of the visiting class was very strict and stern, and we could not help notice the subdued, repressed expressions on the faces of her students, all of them with totally functioning body parts.

My friends and I did short, delightful dances, encouraging the audience to clap along with the rhythms. The best part of our program was to invite all the children to join us. When we encouraged the large group of children with severe "special needs" integrated with one class of children who did not fit into that category, ALL the children with "special needs" rolled, hobbled, limped to the center of the gym to join in the fun. The only children who did NOT participate in our celebration were the visiting children who were not "handicapped." Or were they not?

The image of those healthy-bodied children sitting repressed and slumped, barely involved in the music and the fun of the activity, is imbedded in my memory. Tears in our eyes, we danced, laughed, sang, played with the "special needs" kids while those able-bodied children were immobile.

I will never ever forget the joyous spirit of the "handicapped" children. Their openness, responsiveness, courage and willingness to participate despite all odds deeply touched us. The reluctance of the children who did not face such seemingly insurmountable obstacles taught us a lifelong lesson. Yes, there are children with "special needs" that must be met with wisdom and compassion. But there are other "handicaps" and "special needs" that we must also acknowledge.

How do we encourage openness, confidence, courage and willingness to engage in joyful activities, in perhaps less familiar experiences? How do we help children learn that life is full of many open doors inviting positive, delightful times? When we learn to close ourselves, close the doors, shut down our spirits, we are truly handicapped.

Let us redefine these terms. Let us keep doors and hearts open so the children we teach are strong in confidence, courage and willingness to engage, to explore, to discover the many treasures life has to offer. And, of course, as always, we must be the role models.

-"Mamaloshen" is the Yiddish term for "the mother tongue" and we have adapted it here to represent the wisdom of Columbus arts educator, author and all-around inspiration Mimi Brodsky Chenfeld, who is on a mission to help parents raise happy, healthy, creative children.