I’ve been sitting staring at a blank Word document for a while now, struggling to find the words to begin this post. I tried to reflect on times in my life where my words and actions were powerful, even when I didn’t realize it. I suppose in many ways we’ve been blessed to make it 16 months before we had a moment like we experienced this week.
At my last dental appointment, I asked the appropriate age for bringing children in for their first dental exams. The dentist advised me to start brining Regan in to my appointments to ease the fear of the dental chair and those scrapie, grindy tools they use. That sounded like a good idea to me, so I brought Regan with me to my cleaning this week. I rolled Regan in her stroller into the exam room and explained why I brought her. I also shared that she only has approximately ½ tooth (total), and also that she has Down syndrome, so her delayed teeth are not concerning to me nor her pediatrician.
[As an aside, I typically like to share that Regan has Down syndrome, even though it might be visually obvious to some. I feel like me sharing the words of her diagnosis out loud should help to put others at ease by showing my comfort.]
The hygienist started cleaning my teeth when she said, “So… do they know how that happened?”
My mind swirled with the insinuation of her words. I initially thought she might mean ‘do they know why she doesn’t have teeth yet?’, which would have been an appropriate question. I hesitantly responded, “Do you mean the fact that she has Down syndrome?” “Yea,” she said, without reluctance.
I was so shocked that I didn’t even know how to answer. In hindsight, I can think of a million retorts to put her in her place, but at the time all I could muster was, “It’s not genetic, it just happens at random.” I should have said ‘it only happens to the very lucky ones!’ but shock got the best of me, not to mention the inability to talk while there are two hands and dental tools in your mouth.
By the way – why do dentists and dental hygienists even try to have a conversation with you while they’re working?! It’s not like I’m there for happy hour.
In an ideal world, this would’ve been the worst of the encounter, but it wasn’t. The dentist came in after my cleaning to examine Regan and me. His first reaction to Regan was that “[he] isn’t concerned because development is delayed in… you know…” I had to finish his sentence by saying “…in children with Down syndrome?” And while he was examining my teeth, he was speaking to Regan saying something about ‘cleaning Mommy’s teeth’, turned to me and said, “does she know who you are?”
“YES, SHE KNOWS!”
Ok –so that was a long explanation to show that some people haven’t reached the acceptance level of people with different abilities. But the lesson here is this – PRESUME COMPETENCE.
As a parent of a child with special needs, it is easier if there is a presumption of competence and then for me to explain her differing abilities. It’s disheartening to hear things like “does she know who you are?” Not only is it completely ignorant, it’s irritating to have to explain that she has an understanding level that’s only slightly delayed compared to her typical peers. If you’re unsure what to say when someone tells you they have a child/friend/sibling with different abilities, try responding as if they hadn’t said anything at all. Treat them as if you had no idea they may not have the same abilities as their typical peers. Typically, the person is telling you the difference only to put you at ease.
If you see a baby with a difference, try saying, “what a beautiful baby!” “he/she looks to be doing so well!” or simply, “congratulations!” Asking how the difference happened is not only a ridiculous question (why does it matter how the difference occurred?), but also puts the parent in an awkward place of trying to explain genetics to an already ignorant person.
If you see a child/young adult/adult with a difference, try saying, “hi! Nice to meet you!” You can ask them their name or grade or anything else that’s age-appropriate for anything you’d ask their typical peers. Again, it is easier as a parent to explain any differences once you PRESUME COMPETENCE.
I am happy that we’ve made it this long without having such an encounter, but I know they’ll happen throughout Regan’s life. It’s another situation for which I need to arm myself and have responses ready to even the most ludicrous questions and statements. Thank y’all for always having an open heart while we share our story. I haven’t always understood this world, and it’s my hope to share our experiences as a way of spreading understanding and love.