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When OTs Wore White Shoes

Respecting Children with Disabilities

Published September 16, 2015 2:42 PM by Debra Karplus
Yesterday, we stopped at our favorite ice cream store to treat ourselves to hot fudge sundaes. Living in a relatively small town for a long time, I often find myself running into people that I know from some little pocket of my life, and while standing in line watching our sundaes being prepared, it happened once again. There was Lauren, with two adults who, presumably, were her mom and dad.

Lauren is a very sweet young lady whom I know from the middle school and high school where I provide service. In the several years that I have known her, she is mainstreamed for a few of her classes such as physical education, but mostly she spends her day in the self-contained special education classroom at school with a group of other students who have a variety of disabilities.

"Hi, Lauren, how are you?" I greeted her, in exactly the same way I would anytime I see someone that I know. And then, to put her parents at ease, I clarified that I had known Lauren for several years from the schools where I worked. Her dad quickly blurted out, in a volume that all in the entire ice cream parlor might hear, "Oh, she's autistic!" Not knowing what to make of such a loud, bold, and rather condescending and disrespectful comment about his daughter, I said without thinking, "Well, we all have something."

When I was in public school in Chicago and later in the suburbs, I don't remember seeing anyone with a disability. I believe before all the legislation in the 1970s that was passed to enhance life for people with disabilities, students with special needs were all labeled "retarded" and were "sent away to a special school." I don't remember seeing anyone with special needs until I headed off to the University of Illinois in 1970. 

But these days, anyone pursuing a college degree where they will be working in schools with special needs students such as special education teachers, OTs, speech and language pathologists, and physical therapists, social workers can expect to always have a job because there are so many students now needing our services. The National Center for Education Statistics ( states that for the 2012-2013 school year, approximately 13% of students ages three to 21 were receiving special education services and of those, 8% had been labeled as autistic.

Occupational therapy professionals are experts in promoting disability awareness in our communities. But families such as Lauren's need some support and guidance in treating their child with special needs, no matter what their age, with the same respect that they would want for themselves.

I am eager to hear from readers about their experiences, both positive and negative, in relating to their children and other relatives with disabilities in a more appropriate way, both publically and privately.

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