SOCIAL MEDIA THAT MAKES A DIFFERENCE
Fourteen years ago, I gave birth to my third son, Chazz Bethea. Born at just 24 weeks gestation due to a ruptured placenta, Chazz suffered a serious brain injury that resulted in Cerebral Palsy (pronounced seh-ree-brel pawl-zee) characterized by a severe loss and impairment of his motor functions and developmental abilities. The news was beyond heartbreaking and I initially I felt like my world was crashing in.
I quickly learned firsthand how much it hurts to not have your child well-received by peers because of their physical and/or mental limitations. Glances, stares and insensitive remarks sometimes seemed unbearable. I knew I had to do something about this—not sure exactly what at the time—but something.
Discovering Empathy and Understanding
I first began promoting love and acceptance for Chazz at home with my own children, as well as family and friends. I came to the hard realization that meeting people who are different–whether from another cultural background, a person with a physical deformity, or with obvious special needs--can more often than not be particularly frightening for a child.
For this very reason, I founded The Polka Dot Project, a non-profit dedicated to raise awareness and celebrate people with special needs, and foster acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities into their communities.
I also realized that there is no better way to shape and mold the thinking of people than through social media and entertainment. Therefore, I did it– I took a chance and reached out to Justin K. McClure of the McClure Twins Family and gave him a synopsis of The Polka Dot Project.
Immediately, he was taken with our mission, and wanted to help! Justin offered to devote a special episode of his series The Discovery Twins on Facebook Watch to help his own four-year-old girls learn about people who are different than themselves in the special needs community. He and his wife Ami Dunni McClure are supporters of The Polka Dot Project and are already using their social platform to spread awareness about our mission.
“He’s So Scary”
As you can see in the video on Facebook, when the girls first met Chazz, they were both intimidated by his physical appearance. Little Ava McClure was terrified at first and her twin sister Alexis McClure was cautious and expressed a strong sense of confusion and concern for him. Like most kids (and often adults), they simply did not know to process their deep emotional feelings. After talking with them, and explaining how Chazz lives and thinks, they realized they had many things in common, like a love of music, and coloring and going to the park to swing on the swings.
Teach the Children Well
So, how do we talk with our children about people who are different? Speaking from experience both personally and professionally, here are a few tips that can help:
Talk with your child: The first step is to start a gentle and open dialogue with your child. Observe their physical and oral social cues and encourage them to express how they feel about what they are experiencing when they encounter someone with special needs.
Express enthusiasm: When you display enthusiasm and confidence about the information you are sharing, your messages on the importance of kindness and empathy towards people with special needs will have more impact.
Exhibit Warmth and Feeling: The emotions you convey in your speech provide important behavioral cues and speaking in a warm, friendly and feeling manner is key. Be mindful of the kinds of emotions they may be experiencing, and never criticize them for being scared or intimidated.
Once you have opened up the dialogue with your children about being different, you can have a more meaningful discussion with them about empathy, love and understanding on this topic.
Here’s just a few pointers to guide you:
Displaying Empathy – We must encourage children to have empathy. Having empathy for another individual is a powerful way to elicit feelings of care and concern that will lead to acceptance and understanding. I find that these three tips for helping kids develop empathy are effective:
Identify the need – teach children to identify when another person is in need. For example, if they see someone walking with a cane in front of him, or with a seeing-eye dog, they can reasonably conclude that this person could be blind.
Understand the need `– teach children to understand a person with special needs, assisting them in putting themselves in the shoes of the other person, imagining what he or she must be feeling. In the case of a blind person, you might ask, “Close your eyes ... what do you see? Can you imagine walking around all day, every day like this? How do you think ______ feels?”
Respond to the need – Once children understand what the other person may be feeling, motivate them to want to demonstrate care by taking decisive actions. For example, if a blind visitor comes to the home for a visit, we should encourage our children to pick up stray toys lying around on the floor, to ensure safety.
Help Kids Discover Things They Have in Common - Once children can see the commonalities between themselves and their special needs peers, beautiful connection can occur and the bonds friendship begin to form. For example, Chazz loves music. When the McClure Twins discovered this, they began sharing music with him and were amazed and excited to watch him do his own version of dancing with his hands, and danced alongside him.
Story telling – Create a sense of discovery and wonderment in children for learning about their special needs peers through story telling. Stories teach our children about life, themselves and other people. Help expand their sense of empathy by including illustrations and examples that will help stimulate understanding. For example, Chazz likes to color, and in the Discovery Twins episode, the McClure girls learned that even though Chazz has limited motor functions, they could help him enjoy coloring along with them.
These are some of the tips that I used with my own family and definitely see good results. My older boys grew up with more compassion than if Chazz would have been a typical child. Having Chazz forced us all to be different. For when we are truly able to see beyond disability, we open ourselves up to beautiful experiences and our relationships take on deeper meaning in our lives.
I must give a special thank you to Justin K. McClure and Ami Dunni McClure, the parents of Ava and Alexis, for caring enough about our mission to participate, support and use their social media platform to spread awareness and love for The Polka Dot Project through Discovery Twins on Facebook Watch. They are one of the sweetest families I have ever met. [Watch Justin and Ami discuss the project here.]
Please feel free to enjoy this brief collage of Chazz’s journey here--> https://youtu.be/pafIjoGBqx8
About The Polka Dot Project
The Polka Dot Project was founded by Amy Bethea and Lisa King and is an initiative of The Lifelong Media Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the development and promotion of soft-skills resources and edutainment. The goal is to properly prepare our current and future generations with the 21st Century skills they need to be successful both in business and in life. Learn more about all of our initiatives and projects at bit.ly/ThePolkaDotProject. The Polka Dot Project is accepting volunteers who are skilled in social media, public relations, and editorial (writing, editing, proof reading, copy writing, grant writing) work. For more information, please see www.thepolkadotproject.com/volunteers-for-polka-dot