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“For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and the measure you use, it will be measured to you.“ (Matthew 7:2)
May is an important month to me, as a special education professional. I’ll explain why in a moment. But, first, if you will permit me a short story based on personal experience…
The whispering hush of a wall waterfall muted the sounds of instrumental music as I walked my aunt into her appointment. Beautifully framed art hanging on the green and lavender accent walls of the waiting room deceived you into thinking this was a spa instead of a dental office.
After checking in, I settled my aunt in a chair and took a seat next to her, holding her small, fragile hand in mine. I smiled at the one other person in the room, a woman about my age, who seemed to be watching my aunt and me instead of reading her magazine.
My aunt looked as beautiful and classy as she had every day of her life. Her shoes, bag, and jewelry perfectly matched her leopard print blouse and slim-fit black pants. With her chestnut hair brushed into stylish chin length bob, I thought she looked like a movie star, and I silently thanked the caregivers who had dressed her that morning.
Of all the doctors’ appointments we’d been to over the past few years, this one was simple. Not surgery. Not chemo. Not a visit to the neurologist. Just a simple teeth cleaning.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Today was going to be easy.
Then it happened.
My aunt suddenly stood up and said something, too loudly, and maybe a bit odd, shattering the peaceful atmosphere, reminding me of the Alzheimer’s that never waits in the shadows too long before making its presence known.
I quickly guided my aunt back to her chair, arm around her tiny back, and stole a glance at the woman across from us who had just switched chair and now leaned as far away from us as she could.
She stared at us, not with the look of understanding that I’d expected, but rather with a sense of disdain, her judgment almost palpable, derision barely masked on her face.
I’d seen that look before, countless times, in the faces of strangers when I took my students on field trips in the community.
My students didn’t have Alzheimer’s, but many struggled with cognitive, developmental, and neurological disabilities and also with mental illness. Their behaviors often weren’t what you might expect to see from a child their age.
People stared, some subtly, some blatantly, and very few with kindness in their eyes.
I wanted to ask this lady, and the hundreds of others before her if they had ever heard the American Indian proverb that says you should never judge your neighbor until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.
I would guess that they hadn’t.
Many parents of a typically developing child think they are an expert on a child with special needs. MY child, they think, wouldn’t scream in the grocery store, flap his arms in line at a fast food restaurant, or make strange sounds while rolling on the floor in the bank.
And many adults, who should know better, sit in judgment on those with mental illnesses, dementia, Alzheimer’s.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health disorders affect one in four people. Yet people often don’t receive the help they need, due in part to mental health stigma and discrimination.
The kind of discrimination I felt when I sat with my aunt in a dentist’s waiting room. The stigma that my students carried with them like a heavy backpack in the halls of our school or in public places where unseen neon signs blink, “You are not welcome here.”
Even if you don’t have a child with a disability or a family member with mental illness or Alzheimer’s, you have the responsibility to think before you decide someone is “less than.”
People would not sit in judgement if they had walked in their neighbor’s moccasins – ones that are more than likely soaked with tears.
For this special month, and every month after, please hold kindness close to your heart. Even if you do not have empathy for another’s mental situation, try to have sympathy.
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39)
End the stigma. Fight the cruelty. Love one another.
We are all God’s children, regardless of our mental conditions.