Does having a visible disability make life easier for special-needs families?

"My four-year-old daughter has a bright pink wheelchair that attracts a lot of attention—both positive and negative."

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Four-year-old Syona in her pink wheelchair. Photo: Anchel Krishna

My four-year-old daughter, Syona, has a bright pink wheelchair that attracts a lot of attention—both positive and negative. We get both stares and smiles. Some people cheer her on, while other folks lend a helping hand. Some leap awkwardly out of the way when they see her coming. Occasionally, others will step over her chair or around it, cutting us off. But for the most part, I would say the wheelchair serves as a very visible (read neon pink) indicator that Syona—and our family—might require a little extra accommodation, and that makes life a whole lot easier.

When we went on a trip to Bermuda last year, we travelled with Syona’s wheelchair stroller. We were treated like every other family who had a stroller. However, we found this difficult because we required certain accommodations because of Syona’s cerebral palsy, but that didn’t always happen because her wheelchair stroller looked just like, well, a regular stroller. We had to keep explaining that it was equivalent to a wheelchair. Eventually, we just gave up and managed on our own.

This year, there was no mistaking the fact that Syona’s wheelchair is exactly that: a wheelchair. We even travelled by plane this time. The security agents at the airports were sensitive and gentle when patting down Syona and her wheelchair (typical security protocol). The airline attendants ensured that we boarded the plane early to allow us to get Syona on board safely and securely without the chaos of everyone entering the aircraft at the same time. It was a relatively stress-free travel experience.

As we were flying home, though, I found myself thinking about what it might be like to travel with a child who has special needs that aren’t immediately visible. I couldn’t help but wonder if it is more challenging for those families. I noticed a huge difference in how we were treated as parents of a child in a wheelchair compared to the wheelchair stroller we used last year. I thought about my friend who has a son with autism and what her experience is like. Do people provide the accommodations her family requires as easily and readily as we’ve received them?

I’m not saying that having a child with physical disabilities is easy. There are many challenges related to self-care, physical health and environmental and physical accommodations. But I do think that the visibility of a disability makes it easier for people to see that accommodations are needed. And just that simple bit of knowledge, patience and understanding can make life so much easier.

Follow along as Anchel Krishna shares her experiences as mother to Syona, an extraordinary preschooler with cerebral palsy. Read all of Anchel’s Special-needs parenting posts and follow her on Twitter @AnchelK.

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