When I was four, the first of my two little brothers was born and like any other older sibling, I looked forward to the day I could teach him how to moonwalk or recite his ABCs. But as the months passed and he got a little bit bigger and older, I realized that day would never come. Through the years I came to accept that he would never be the jock that I became or get to tell his friends how cool his big brother was. I realized he would never get to run home with an ‘A’ in math like I used to or sneak into my room to play Nintendo or Sega like I did with my older brothers.
My little brother was born with cerebral palsy. As young as I was, I could never understand what that really means but through the years I began to understand what it looks like. I remember seeing the fear and agony in his eyes when he used to wake up in the middle of the night unable to breath but incapable of saying what was wrong. I remember him avoiding unfamiliar faces as he would hide behind me because he knew he was a little bit different by the way people would stare at him and treat him. When I was nine, I remember punching a boy at church because he threw a brick at him, and at thirteen I remember kicking the babysitter because she slapped him—something I’m not proud of, but do not regret doing. And when my mother passed away, I remember dealing with the pain and anguish of wondering if my little brother understood she was gone.
There is a world out there many of us never take the time to understand. In that world, every smile is more than just a polite gesture and every idle conversation means more to someone than just a common courtesy. It’s a world that doesn’t mind you laughing at Carlos Mencia dee dee dee jokes but hopes that your sense of humor is not merely a product of ignorance and underlying prejudices. It’s a world where some places have big names like Dementia or Schizophrenia and cool sounding spots like Autism. It’s a place that some call disadvantaged, but I call different; a place that others call Special Ed, but I call blessed and special. It’s a place where being sick is more than just a 3 letter word called the flu and getting well is more than just a doctor prescribed 3-day bed rest. It’s a world you may not understand but a world that needs your understanding; a place where kindness and love are always needed and appreciated.
We’ve come a long way as a society with regards to how we treat the mentally ill and physically disadvantaged. We have changed for the better, but that doesn’t mean our job is done and that our evolution is complete. We are individuals and a society that sometimes continues to shun, ignore, and discriminate against the mentally and physically challenged. You hear it in our jokes as we make fun of each other and you see it in our architecture and technology as we sometimes fail to accommodate the physical and mental disadvantages of others. We see it in our health care policies and how they inadequately meet the needs of the mentally ill and physically disabled, and we see it in the stigma that surrounds those who have to take medications for conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Bipolar Disorder, and others.
We have to start learning to be sympathetic to the plight of others. The struggles and ordeals that people with mental illnesses and physical disabilities have to confront or attempt to overcome are immense, and our ignorance and failure to be supportive, protective, encouraging, and sympathetic only makes their burden more difficult and much harder to bare.
Sincerely, Kwapi Vengesayi