Years ago, when Alphonse was ten, he saw a parked car at the side of the road during one of his neighborhood walks. Because he loved to ride cars (he still does) and the car looked exactly like ours- same make, same model, same color- he tried to get into that car.
The doors were locked and Alphonse, oblivious to his nanny’s attempts to pull him away, kept jiggling the handle to open the car’s back passenger door. Within seconds, however, a man came out of the front driver’s side and berated my son and his nanny loudly. When the nanny explained that Alphonse has autism and that he did not understand that that car was not ours, the man shouted at them and said, “Dapat itinatali sa leeg ang mga ganyan!” (Loose translation: “People like him should be put on a leash.”)
I am reminded of this by the recent incident at a Whole Food store in Milwaukee. (Go ahead and watch the video, before proceeding. I’ll wait. Just promise to come back, okay?) It is disconcerting to know that in this day and age, when autism awareness is at the forefront of the fight for recognition and acceptance, this kind of prejudice still exists and occurs. The thought of putting a leash on a human being because of a disability sickens me. Why do we treat our fellow human beings this way? And what’s next? Do we gag them as well? Do we take away their right to exist?
Just this morning, I read an open letter to the management of Gymboree here in the Philippines. It was written by the parents of a five-year-old girl with autism. It hurts to read that eighteen years after we started our own journey with autism, things like these still happen. I thought that we had paved the road well enough with our own sacrifices and tears that children like Patricia will never have to be treated with less respect than is owed them as a human beings.
I haven’t given up hope that one day soon, and hopefully in my lifetime, we can begin to really extend the arms of welcome and understanding to people whose differences set them apart from us. In the meantime, we keep fighting the good fight for our children.
We are all they have. We are their weapons against prejudice and hate. And with our love, they will overcome.
Update: Gymboree Philippines has come out with a reply here. While I sincerely respect the company’s prerogative to set their own rules, it doesn’t seem to make sense to make age as the sole determining factor to decide who gets to use which facilities. How about size? Or skills? A few months within the child’s 60th month (if she has had her birthday and they insist on sticking to their 60-month rule) is not likely to make a difference in the big picture of autism.
I think it’s time that they change their rules to accommodate the needs of children with disabilities. In the end, I pray that Gymboree understands that children like Patricia don’t need freebies or token gifts- what they need are the opportunities to play and socialize and just be kids.
What they need is compassion.