Eli was my guide into a beautiful new world. One that includes people of all ages and abilities. One that loves people, not in spite of, but because of their differences. One that is still invisible to many.
I had the immense honor of traveling through the world everyday with Eli. Mostly we were met with melting hearts, oohs and aaahs, stories of how somebody special changed their lives. But sometimes we were met with silence – the sound of fear. Because, Eli was different. The truth is, he loved people, swinging, cheese and getting dirty. He laughed at everything his big brothers did and cried when it was time to leave the park. He was the best hugger and the worst sleeper. But Down syndrome comes with easily recognizable features, so at first glance, he was different. I could almost hear the questions inside people’s minds as they froze. Does he have Down syndrome? Is that the politically correct term? Should I mention that? Do I say hi? Can he even understand me? Can he talk? Maybe I should say hi to his mom? Oh, phew, they’re past me now. What’s next on my grocery list? Oh, carrots, okay.
I don’t blame people. We all do it. I’ve done it too. We don’t want to offend and we do want to include. I think this fear is a product of a lack of diversity in our daily interactions.
Until Eli led us to a community with a vast diversity of needs, I had never thought about using technology for communication or where people who use wheelchairs play. I’d never seen an abdominal feeding tube or known leaving the lights up at parties can help people who are deaf or hearing impaired converse more easily. Did you know there are simple ways to make PDFs accessible for those who are visually impaired? If no, you’re not alone. As my ten-year-old, Jaxon put it, "We need more places in our world where all people can spend time together."
“We need more places in our world where all people can spend time together.” Jaxon Reischl
That’s why accessible, inclusive, outdoor space is so important. If people of all ages, races, abilities and economic status don’t have access to shared places, then we can’t share experiences. And because everything we know about the world is shaped by our experiences; having entire groups of people missing from our experiences will leave us with huge gaps in our knowledge. These gaps are dangerous holes where fear and low expectations can settle and fester. If we can diversify our interactions we will reap the benefits of a more inclusive world. This park will be a space that is accessible, inclusive, natural, welcoming and peaceful so that we can have a place to gather, spend time with and learn to love people who are different then ourselves.
Eli was a pioneer of inclusion. He wasn’t a scholar of cultural responsiveness or disability rights advocacy. He just got it naturally. Too young to be indoctrinated in institutional and implicit bias and too pure to believe our differences are anything but amazing.
That’s a beautiful, new world. One we all deserve access to.