As the mother of a child with disabilities, I’ve got shocking news from the schoolyard about how kids really talk to someone who looks different.
Photo: Lionsgate Entertainment
There’s a scene in Wonder when a kid called Julian asks the main character, August—in front of all their classmates—if Darth Sidius is his favourite character in Star Wars. August has facial differences, so there’s nothing innocent about the question. This part of the story actually made me flinch.
I’m raising two kids, one of whom knows exactly how it feels to be treated differently for looking different. My son, who is nine years old, has cerebral palsy, a motor disability that affects his ability to walk and talk. He accesses the world around him in a wheelchair and uses an eye-gaze computer to help say what he’s thinking. Once a week, when I bring him with me to pick up my five-year-old daughter at her mainstream school, we are bombarded with cruel questions:
“Are his teeth fake?” “Why are his teeth so big?” “Does he have monster teeth?”
“Why is he in a stroller?”
“It’s a wheelchair,” I respond, unable to answer the previous questions—because, why should I?
“What is he in a wheelchair for?” “Why does he have glasses?” “Why can’t he talk?”
“What’s wrong with him?”
Please treat my daughter like she’s human Kids can be curious. Curiosity is good—that’s how we learn. But as we’re verbally bombarded by a half dozen kids crowding the fence, all I can think is that there is nothing good about the spirit in which they hurl out their questions.
A couple of weeks ago one boy even asked if my son was dead, because he wasn’t moving. My son was in his wheelchair, warm and snug under a blanket. “He’s relaxed,” I replied, “Do you move around when you are relaxing?” But sometimes I don’t have ready answers. And sometimes I’m just tired of it: The stares. The whispers. The insensitive questions.
While my son does not speak in the way the kids at my daughter’s school do, he is listening to every word they say. After one particularly bad day at the school gates, I ask him if he wishes kids were asking him questions instead of me, and he responds with a big “Yes.” Like August, in Wonder, all he wants is to make new friends, and my heart is heavy when I think about those boys who can only see how he is different from them—I bet at least one of those boys likes chocolate ice cream and has a pet dog at home, just like my son.
We decide that next time, I’m going to ignore their questions and instead say, “Hello, this is my son. He says yes with a smile and no by looking upwards, and he would be happy to answer your questions.”
It’s a better strategy, but at the same time I’m tired of us always having to do the work of educating other people’s kids. And so I was happy to learn that Wonder, a book that has meant a lot to my family, is now reaching a wider audience as a Hollywood film.
Every night for weeks, my son and daughter and I have all climbed into my son’s big bed, so the kids can listen to me read Wonder aloud. We pause often, so I can answer my children’s questions, and also because I sometimes choke up at details like Halloween being August’s favourite holiday, since he gets to hide behind a mask and pretend he’s normal.
We talk about the kids in Wonder who’re mean, and also about those who’re kind, like the girl who sits with August for lunch on the first day of school. We talk about how we too can be kind and include others in our own lives.
My daughter especially likes listening to the perspective of Auggie’s sister, Via. Via feels a lot of stress from having to stick up for her brother when others treat him with disgust. And I feel for Via, just as I worry for my daughter, as she grows older. It should not be a child’s responsibility to educate all the other kids in the schoolyard—that’s where every parent needs to step up.
You might feel like disability issues don’t concern your family, but they do. How can any of us accept a world where non-disabled kids can grow up cheerfully oblivious to the fact that a person with visible differences is a human with likes, dislikes, hobbies, opinions and feelings?
My kids got so much out of talking about Wonder. I’m sure your family would too. So please read the book together. (There’s also a picture book for younger kids (aged 4-8), written from Auggie’s perspective, called We’re All Wonders.) Or go see the film. Then sit down as a family and discuss differences and kindness.
The anti-bullying tagline for Wonder—Choose kind!—is a pretty simple one to live by. After you’ve finished talking with your kids, get out into the world and model it. When you see a child on the playground who looks different to your own, don’t shhh your child for commenting on those differences or—worse still—move away. Teach them the difference between cruel and acceptable questions and teach them how to address someone with differences or disabilities politely and directly. Better still, simply come and say, Hello! Kids like my son love meeting people and making new friends.
There are steps you can take outside of school too. Getting your kids involved in activities that include peers who look different from them is a great way to get them think more inclusively. My son uses a walker to play soccer in an all-abilities league, and he loves the sport just as much as his sister does.
Want to go one step further as an ally? Demand inclusive classrooms (and the supports needed to do inclusion properly). There are 800 kids at my daughter’s mainstream school and not one of them has a visible disability. Perhaps your kid’s school is like that too. But when kids with physical differences learn alongside non-disabled kids, everyone benefits: Equipment like wheelchairs, walkers and communication books or tablets are demystified, and instead of being seen as scary and othering, they are seen as awesome tools that make it possible to play, learn and chat with every classmate.
Now wouldn’t that be wonderful?