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The Softer Side of Discrimination

By Lindsay Hutton

The Softer Side of Discrimination

Despite these relatively enlightened times, many still respond and react to difference in funny ways. Today a child with hearing loss isn’t likely to confront the same kind of discrimination they would 50 years ago, but many parents of children struggle to confront the decidedly softer side of discrimination, including special treatment and tokenizing.

Though not as overt as bullying, segregation or other hallmarks of ableism, this behaviour is rooted in the notion that your child is less capable than others, and that their entire being revolves around their difference in ability. What’s more is it can create confusion — when you are the front line of your child’s advocacy, when should you step up and insist on a level playing field?

Here’s an example. Brian F. of Victoria is father to Melissa, a sprightly nine-year-old born with profound hearing loss in one ear, and moderate hearing loss in the other. Melissa uses hearing aids, and is taking violin lessons with an ensemble of other children. “She loves it and she works hard at it, but she’s about average in relation to the other kids,” says Brian. “It has little to do with her hearing loss; she’s a bit clumsy with her fingers. It doesn’t bother her; she mostly takes part because she has fun with the group.”

That is, until recently. In preparation for the yearly concert, the music teacher approached Brian with the possibility of Melissa having a solo in the concert, noting it would be such an “inspiration to the audience to see a girl who has been through so much playing on her own.”

Taken aback, Brian said he would discuss it with Melissa, who was confused — there had never been a soloist before in the group — it had always been an ensemble. Why now? “What could I say?” says Brian. “’Honey, because you can’t hear as well as the others, you could really teach the audience a little something about overcoming barriers with a solo?”

Similar stories abound. Other parents forcing their hearing child to play with a non-hearing child. Teachers over-praising the efforts of special needs children in front of others. Overprotective coaches. So how to deal? Bombard the offending party with reading material on the nuances of ableism? Take every extra privilege your kid can get? Pretend it doesn’t exist?

Not quite, says Dr. Jeffrey Wong, a child and youth psychologist with Banyan Community Services in Hamilton. “Making the public aware the competency that children with hearing deficits have is not to say they aren’t whole. There’s a fine line: it’s important to make helpers and friends aware of your child’s ability,” he says. “But changing that starts with creating awareness. It’s essential to make people aware of your child’s capabilities and to work within them.”

Start by setting clear guidelines of your child’s ability to helpers and other parents. For example, your child may need instructions to be repeated. To bolster your child’s role in the equation, speak with them first to let them know what exactly you are advising others. In addition, encourage your child to makes allies with a friend who can assist them if required, though such relationships have a tendency to build on their own.

What of this in the context of Melissa and the violin concert? “After much discussion with her mother, we talked to her about it,” says Brian. “We simply asked her if that was something she was interested in. She simply shrugged and said she’d rather play with the group.”

And as for the music teacher? “I thanked her for her consideration, but I told her straight: this group is about kids playing violin together,” says Brian. “We went over her capabilities, but gently suggested that as a part of the group, she was quite happy to be just that: a part of the group.”

Differences in ability and privilege exist, but it’s worth it to start with a level playing field. Promoting a fair shake for your kid doesn’t make their difference invisible, it can only create a foundation where they learn to work, play and live with the knowledge that people with various capabilities can work together.