Standing up for oneself is a very important part of growing up. We develop confidence as we learn to advocate for what we believe is right in a very complex, dog-eat-dog world. Whether a toddler takes a toy that another toddler is playing with or an older sibling grabs a cookie from the hand of a much younger sibling, defending one’s honor starts at a very young age. I remember as a youngster that very often one would defend himself with his fists if someone made a snide remark or was just cruel. Boys and sometimes girls, would physically settle the bully issue until an adult would intervene or someone would finally give up.
Defending one’s honor can be a daunting task for a typical child, much less one that has limited or no language. We, as parents, do our best to teach our kids to do what is right and to solve their problems with words instead of fisticuffs. But there will be times when we can’t protect them and they will fall victim to the slings and arrows of other children without such influence, known as a bully. Kids with disabilities are especially vulnerable to bullying.
My son doesn’t understand sarcasm, most name calling, or even funny faces being made at him in a cruel way. He has been called filthy names and he knows how to repeat them, but doesn’t know what these cruel words mean. He has learned over time from people who care about him how to practice standing up for himself using phrases such as, “I don’t like that” or “Back off” or “Leave me alone”. My favorite is from when he was a little boy and he would say,”You’re not the boss of me!” I remember trying not to laugh out loud when he would say this so seriously in disagreement with something asked of him. And while he may not have understood the expression, he did understand that this series of words stopped someone from asking him to do something he did not want to do. As a parent I should have been upset at his disobedience, but I was proud at Lathom’s first attempt of self-advocacy.
Move ahead 15 years. Lathom has seen other individuals in group homes call 911 many times for different reasons -some justified, some not- but he has never attempted it himself until recently. The first time he dialed 119 because he was upset about something that was not serious. The second time he was upset, he dialed 911 from our family home and got through to someone. I heard him talking on the phone and thought he was talking to his sister, who often coaches him on an issues, such as broken toys and misunderstandings with others. As I heard more of the conversation I realized that it was not his sister but some other woman, a 911-operator. When Lathom handed me the phone, the woman informed me that he had called but she could not understand what he was saying. I explained the situation and assured her that he was fine and I would talk to him. End of conversation.
The third and most recent 911 call was made by Lathom from his group home. One of the young men, also a resident, was angry at Lathom for not being totally quiet when he was talking to his mom on the phone in his room. Lathom was in his own room watching a movie with his door closed. When Lathom was sitting at the table eating jello a few minutes later, this young man hit him on the back of the head. Lathom did not strike back, which spoke volumes to me. Instead of telling the caregiver who did not have a clear view of what happened, he dialed 911 and said he had been hit. The operator understood him and dispatched the police, who questioned both young men and filed a report.
While it ended up being an uneventful situation, it was a good lesson for all involved. The caregiver and the group home organization learned that these people need constant attention so that if there is an altercation it can be handled immediately. The 911-operator and the responding officers learned that in a home of people with disabilities, sometimes the residents are capable of acting more “normal” than expected. Lathom learned that when he speaks, he is heard.
HE ADVOCATED FOR HIMSELF AND HE DID IT CORRECTLY! I am so proud of my son for standing up for himself and doing the right thing. He is learning one of the most important rights of every individual, abled and disabled: believe in yourself, stand up for yourself, and speak for yourself.