Joyous Recognition: A Lesson From My Father

One of my earliest memories is walking with my father to a nearby bakery. I couldn't have been older than 7 or 8, and I had just made it through another soccer match. My younger brothers got all the athletic genes in my family, and bribery was one of the only ways to get my nose out of a book. So we were on our way to get the jelly donut I had been promised. He was an engineer and manager at a local medical supplies manufacturing plant and spent his weekends coaching my team and acting as league commissioner, despite his eldest son's vocally reluctant participation.  
As I walked down the street, holding my father's hand, I noticed a young woman in a motorized wheelchair a few blocks ahead of us, followed by an older woman. I stared at the younger woman as they got closer, and I remember being confused and feeling uncomfortable noticing what I know now to be the symptoms of cerebral palsy. I looked up at my father for reassurance or explanation, but he didn't even notice. 

Because he was also looking right at her, but with a big, goofy grin on his face. I looked back at the woman and saw that she too was smiling widely and starting to bounce up and down in her chair. As they approached, my father let go of my hand and crouched down in front of the woman, who exclaimed loudly again and again, and actually pushed her chair into him, almost knocking him over. He reached over and gave her a giant bear hug and she actually pushed herself out of her chair to make him pick her up. They both fell over into the grass next to the sidewalk, laughing loudly and clearly overjoyed to see each other. I stood on the sidewalk, staring back and forth between the two of them and the older woman, who also had a big smile on her face. I was profoundly confused.  
After what seemed like forever of this bewildering scene, Dad remembered I was there and introduced me to the young woman. She had been one of his campers when he worked at the summer camp for children with disabilities where he and my mom met. He insisted they both turn around and come with us the rest of the short way to the bakery, reaching down to hold the younger woman's hand to reinforce the point. As we walked, he told me and the older woman, who turned out to be her mother, story after story of summer hijinks that he and his now very giggly former camper had gotten into. Practical jokes, both on each other and on other counselors, seemed to be the common theme.  
This was the first time I remember this kind of thing happening but it wasn't the last. My mother was a special education teacher for 30-something years and later, when he could no longer bribe me onto the soccer field, my dad spent his weekends coaching a wheelchair handball team (which, by the way, is an insanely competitive and entertaining sport) and the guys on his team taught me and my brothers every wheelchair trick in the book. I don't remember ever being explicitly taught "acceptance" or "awareness" for difference, or for people with disabilities, but I do remember understanding pretty early on that there just wasn't any other way to be.  

My Anya was born in 2012, and we discovered that night that she had Down Syndrome. My immediate reaction, that first night, was largely the same as many parents in that situation - the details of which you can read in new DS parent blog posts all over the Internet. But when my parents came up to the hospital room the next day to meet their first grandchild, I saw my dad look at her with the same big, goofy grin on his face that he had that day so long before, seeing his favorite former camper on the street. I saw that he - and my mother and brothers - were all unreservedly, unabashedly overjoyed to meet her from the moment they laid eyes on her. They didn't ignore her Down Syndrome - in fact they were immediately telling funny stories of former students and campers with DS. But their quiet insistence, through their actions and words, that this was an occasion for laughter and joy just like any other birth, enabled me to snap out of whatever self-centered sorrow I was in much quicker than I would have on my own. It enabled me to spend those first days meeting my daughter and falling in love with her, because it enabled me to be aware of her diagnosis without it obscuring this actual adorable new little person who was going to call me "daddy."

We focus a lot on acceptance and awareness of disability, and it is important for us to do so. I am profoundly grateful to my parents for a childhood that perhaps makes that easier for me than it otherwise would be. Difference shouldn't be ignored or glossed over any more than it should be mourned or ridiculed. But I think the more important lesson my father taught me was that if acceptance or awareness doesn't lead to joyous recognition, if it doesn't lead to holding hands walking down the sidewalk and practical jokes and wrestling in the grass and love - if it doesn't lead to inclusion - then it isn't actually acceptance or awareness. It's just words.

Rob is a proud father living in Baltimore City. He works a Senior Data Scientist at RedOwl, a Baltimore-based start-up and still reads too much and exercises too little.