"Sanjana, don’t be worried! It’ll be fun,” my sister pacified me as I walked into the volunteering program for the first time. Despite her reassurance, I couldn’t wipe the look of apprehension from my face as I thought to myself, “What if they don’t like me? What if I can’t help them?” I didn’t know what to expect. Would these special-needs students be running around? Would they listen to me? Would they even understand me?
As I opened the dance studio door for the first time, I was greeted by a energetic boy around my age who said, “Hi, my name is Vaibhav and I love to dance! What’s your name?” My look of apprehension quickly faded into a smile. It shocked me to find out later that day that Vaibhav was a special-needs student. It got me thinking: what qualifies someone to have “special needs”? Why is there such a large social stigma attached to people with “special needs”? As a sixth grader, it did not make sense to me — Vaibhav and all the rest of the students didn’t seem any different from me. Six years later, I still do not understand why those with special-needs are treated differently from those society considers to be “normal”. By categorizing people as “special-needs,” society highlights their disabilities, masking their true talents.
What do you think of when you first hear that someone has special-needs? A single person, group, or particular event? Oftentimes, people do not realize that “special-needs” is a term that encompasses several different groups, including physical, developmental, behavioral, and sensory impaired. Essentially, special-needs ranges anywhere from chronic asthma to autism to ADD. Even more surprising is the fact that almost 19 percent of children under 18 are considered “special-needs.”
Therein lies the problem: because the greater public is unaware that such a large number of people are diagnosed with disabilities, it has become significantly harder for those with special-needs, especially children, to comfortably express themselves in an open environment. This problem is evident in America’s education system; students with disabilities make up approximately 14 percent of students in the public school system, with fifty to sixty percent of these students being bullied. While there are programs aimed to remedy these issues, the sheer numbers suggest more awareness needs to be raised for special-needs children. The larger public needs to be more educated in what it means to have “special-needs.” The best way to make a change is to recognize that those with special-needs are not different from those who do not. Jeena, the program I have been apart of for the past six years, aims to showcase the talents of special-needs children, allowing them to share through performances what they are passionate about.
Before I started volunteering with developmentally-disabled students, I did not realize how many similarities I would share with them. I looked at this experience as an opportunity to help others when I first started as a naive middle-schooler, but fostering new relationships and learning more about the special-needs community has opened my eyes to the talents of a group that is overlooked by society because the term “special-needs” overshadows them.
My main goal before entering the program was to teach the children how to dance. While I continue to achieve my goal and help kids feel comfortable dancing, I have also grown into a more compassionate, understanding, and open-minded person, by showing genuine interest in the students’ lives. Every time I go to class, not only do I want to share my passion for dancing with students, I also find that I am interested in their personal lives, which allows me to form stronger friendships with the students every time I volunteer.
For the past few years, I have been working closely with a teenage girl named Pallavi. Not only have I come to love Pallavi’s shy, yet joyful and energetic nature, I have also come to realize that she is not any different from people who are perceived as “normal” by society. After working closely with Pallavi for three months, I was given a beautifully-written, meaningful article by her mother. She told me Pallavi had written it, but is shy to share her work, because she is afraid others will not approve. Although I was initially surprised that Pallavi, who has trouble focussing and verbally expressing herself, had written such a moving article, I realized her amazing abilities are manifested within written works. When I went up to Pallavi and complimented her piece, her face lit up with one of the biggest smiles I had ever seen, and I learned in that moment that the smallest actions can have the biggest impact on others’ lives.
Working with special-needs children is one of the most rewarding experiences I have taken part in. Despite how society labels particular communities, it is important to see past the inaccurate titles and focus on the similarities.
I can never understand what it means to have “special-needs” and will never experience the struggles others who fall under this label face, but I am grateful to have the opportunity to work so closely with special-needs children. It is not hard to make a difference. You can make a difference by learning more about what it means to have special-needs and showing genuine interest in their lives, whether through volunteer work or simply befriending those who have special-needs. The smallest actions can make the biggest difference, so I strongly encourage you to take these small steps to make a big difference.
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