Myth-busting the definition of "special" needs

I’m sharing a story with you that I’ve related to friends a number of times over the years, and I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to share it with you.

I have been asked a few times in my life, since my special daughter was born, if she has siblings and if they also have “special” needs. One time, I didn’t answer the question immediately and took a minute or two to reflect on it. The silence was powerful. I looked peacefully at the person who asked the question and answered with, “We all have ‘special’ needs.”

It is a myth that special-needs children and/or adults are the only people in the world with unique needs that stem from the issues, complications or dilemmas they face.

“We all have our own individual and collective special needs and challenges. They are not all visible or obvious – in fact, most are not.”

People with the special hearts of Down syndrome, including my darling daughter, bring a distinct and visible face to their unique situations. Not everyone wears their special needs so openly. Today, more than ever, the entire world faces challenges that are reflected in each and every individual.

There is more human disconnect than ever before. There is more illness than ever before. And, when I think about it, perhaps they intertwine. Physical illness and challenges. Spiritual illness and challenges. Emotional illness and challenges. Mental illness and challenges. Abuse or neglect, and challenges.

These illnesses and challenges don’t limit themselves to any one people, generation, gender, race or social status. They are certainly not isolated or only inclusive of the “special” needs population or community. Genetic character and chromosomal counts do not translate into major challenges in life. We all face challenges and realities we didn’t choose: abuse, neglect, drug or alcohol addiction, exploitation, illness or disease, financial loss and many other life areas of hurt, suffering and pain.

These various struggles and challenges arise from heredity, society, cultural practices, emotional and/or intellectual choices, and some come from places that will forever remain a mystery to us all.

Yes, the special chromosomal personal makeup that makes people like my daughter special can create and cause various life challenges – physically, medically and intellectually – but they also create the unique gifts, talents and beauty she exemplifies. Her special, loving heart and emotional awareness are beautiful, engaging and uniquely different. When supported with love, peace, understanding, communication, respect, faith and connection, our special friends and loved ones grow even more special with and in their own strength.

What if we could have a loving, positive influence and effect on everyone in our world who faces challenges and has “special” needs? Consistent, meaningful, caring love and support are positive and life changing. For all of us.

My daughter and I met a special young man on the bus recently; he did not have Down syndrome but did have a level of intellectual disability. He was also outgoing, engaging and amazing. He spoke with several people on the bus, moving around several times. I admired him and his approach. He engaged in conversation with two young children and they fully engaged back with him. I hoped that their parent saw the benefit and inclusion in that exchange. Eventually, we found him sitting across from us. He saw the words on our matching yellow “Ups and Downs” t-shirts, which we often wear when we’re out together because they are special too us. He asked if there were more ups or downs for us, with Down syndrome. What a great question, and I noticed others on the bus were listening to our conversation. The answer given to him, to the others within ear shot, and most importantly to my daughter: “Definitely all ups. There are no downs.”

What a blessing those words were and are, that were placed in my heart and on my lips and in the minds of others that day on the bus. What if we approached all of our challenges and special needs with gratitude?

So, my friends, yes, we all have our own individual and collective special needs and challenges. They are not all visible or obvious – in fact, most are not. And, we all benefit from the same, special levels of care, love and understanding that have given my daughter a place to flourish. For every unique, special need a person has, they also have their own beauty, strength, resilience, perspective and knowledge. Living within a collective peace and acceptance has unlimited and immeasurable benefit and grace, and is definitely special – special like each and everyone of you.