So why did they avoid all eye contact with us and Elin as we sat behind them on the boat ride? Why did they not return our smiles and our attempts to engage with their children?
I'm really not trying to hold them up as pariahs of society because they chose to ignore us that day, but I have to get it off my chest. This particular family, of course, may just be the kind that don't talk to those around them anyway. We've all been there, at the park, the swimming baths..avoiding eye contact because you can't really be bothered to exchange niceties with someone you'll never see again. I get it. But something felt a little different in this situation. It was Mother's Day, the sun was out..the atmosphere at the zoo was great. Sharing a tiny boat with someone you're not even going to glance at can start to feel a little awkward. I want to be clear, I don't think this was due to any kind of mean spirited feelings on their behalf. I think they were scared.
That's what has upset me.
They were scared of how to react or what they should and shouldn't say to us in our isolating, unfamiliar situation. Maybe they just figured it's just easier to say nothing at all. Well here is my open letter to them about what would have been a more preferable response to us and why, perhaps by sharing this I can help other's to feel more confident about interacting with families like ours.
To the family at the zoo,
We were the family sitting behind you last week on the boat at the zoo. You seemed like a really lovely family and your boys were super cute. I don't want to make you feel bad. I understand why you didn't look at us or talk to us today, I truly do. It's a minefield of political correctness out there and I think you were scared to say something to us in case maybe it was wrong somehow. Perhaps, in another lifetime, I would have done the same.
However I want to tell you that when you see families like ours, saying nothing at all is the very worst thing you can do. Way beyond any worries you may have (in the split second you decide not to talk to us) about causing offence by saying the wrong thing. Believe me, you can't say the wrong thing- we've heard it all before and more. Our interactions with strangers about Elin are so well practised we could hold a conversation in our sleep about her with smiles on our faces. I very much doubt there is anything you could do, say, or ask that could cause us even the smallest amount of offence.
Please, just smile at us or better yet -say something. Ask what my daughter's name is, or how old she is. Ask us if we've been to the zoo before. Talk about the weather. Anything you would say to an ordinary family. Ask if Elin likes the animals. (I will tell you she struggles to see very well but the noise of the flamingoes make her laugh and if she gets close enough to the penguins she loves watching their bodies glide through the water). I don't want to swap phone numbers with you and be your best friend honestly, just please don't ignore us. It breaks my heart a little bit.
Your boys would have benefitted so much from what you could have taught them by talking to us. That disabled children don't need to be ignored, they are children just the same. That it's nice to find out a little bit about something new. That there is no need to look away, or be worried about a small figure like them with wheels where their feet should be. Maybe they would have asked you a few questions about Elin after we parted ways, which would have been another wonderful opportunity for you to educate your children on the positivity of differences between us all. You wasted that today and I am sorry, not for us but for you.
I truly believe Elin is here for many different reasons. One of them is providing this opportunity for us all to learn a little bit more about the world and to appreciate it's beauty in all of the different forms, whether that be alike or very different to what we are used to. Don't waste that opportunity. Do just a little bit to change our world and you might find your own changed just a little bit, too.
Just smile. Say hello. See where the conversation takes you.
You never know what you might learn. There is absolutely nothing to fear when you see a family like ours I promise. We are really just like you, we're just sailing on a different boat down a different river, that's all.
The family at the zoo.
"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world"-Nelson Mandella.