It was one of those mornings: too much to do in too little time, and I found myself feeling slightly annoyed as I joined the back of a long line at my local overcrowded Starbucks.
Not too hot.
Not too cold.
Every single order seemed more complicated than the last, but then I shouldn’t have been surprised. Who goes to Starbucks for a plain cup of coffee anyway?
With nothing to do but people watch as I waited for my drink, my eyes scanned the room: a group of students studying, their brows furrowed in deep concentration inches from their laptop screens; a gathering of moms wearing name brand sneakers and workout clothes that looked suspiciously sweat-free; several suits and ties immersed in business meetings that made me grateful I wasn’t in the corporate world.
And then I saw them, sitting there, mere feet from me, their salt and pepper heads huddled together as if they were the only two people in the entire place.
He was busy patiently encouraging her. “You can do it, sweetheart.”
She was busy scanning the table, trying to make sense of the colorful flashcards in front of her.
He squeezed her shoulder every once in a while, directing her attention back to the task at hand whenever she would start staring off into the distance.
She would respond with a slow smile, her weathered hands hovering over the cards as if willing the right answer to guide them.
It could have been anything.
A stroke, accident, dementia.
I couldn’t begin to speculate whether something had come crashing through her life or snuck up quietly behind her, but it was obvious this woman was working very hard to learn the alphabet again.
More importantly however, sitting right next to her was a man who believed she was worth teaching it to.
To any other bystander, they probably appeared pretty unremarkable; an adorable elderly couple enjoying a peaceful moment, while the rest of the world passed hurriedly by.
But I knew better.
As they sat there working – he patient and kind, she struggling yet determined – they were the very definition of what I so desperately want from society for my special needs child: A fighting chance.
A chance to try.
A chance to succeed.
A chance for Andrew to speak his mind,using whatever means of communication makes sense for him.
A chance to be understood because people take the time to listen.
A chance to be loved and valued for who he is, not punished or judged for who he is isn’t.
A chance to experience life on his terms, instead of having to constantly conform and be someone more acceptable in the eyes of society.
We often speak of ways we can do better for our special needs population, and in a lot of ways those discussions intersect issues that the elderly face as well, for they too are viewed as the weaker link: outdated, frail, dependent, unable to keep pace with their younger, able-bodied counterparts.
And because my grandmother – who suffered a stroke in 2008 – lives with us, I have been given a very rare opportunity to witness firsthand how these two very important people in my life are too often regarded as a lost cause by a world that just can’t be bothered to give them a fighting chance.
The looks and attitudes they face when they aren’t protected by the nourishing environment of our home are almost identical:
“You’re moving too slow.”
“Can’t you keep up?”
“What’s taking so long?”
“Just use your words!”
“What makes you think you’re so special?”
“You should already know this!”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I don’t have time for this.”
“You’re not my problem.”
and the worst one of all:
“You don’t matter.”
There are a lot of things I advocate for on behalf of my son, whether at school, in doctors’ offices, on playgrounds, and through my articles, but they can all be summed up simply by going back to that sweet couple at Starbucks.
Here was a woman who, for reasons unknown to me, was having to relearn something she’d likely already known most of her life, and instead of being given up on because it was deemed too late or pointless, she was instead being given the chance to try again.
It’s what I want for my grandmother.
And, it’s what I want for my special needs son.
I want people – whether they are constant fixtures in Andrew’s life or just happen to cross his path temporarily – to know he’s worth the time and effort it takes to teach him, to guide him, to provide him with never ending opportunities to succeed.
I want him to be given the chance to learn the alphabet,
no matter how long it takes,
no matter how often he might forget it,
no matter how many times he may get it wrong
before he finally gets it right.
*If you have a moment, I would be honored if you’d take the time to vote for A Sweet Dose of Truth, which is a finalist in the Parents Magazine 2013 Blog Awards (“Most likely to have you reaching for the stars” category). You can vote every 24 hours until February 24th by visiting this link. Thank you!*