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Special Needs Controversy Speaks to Lack of Compassion

The recent uproar and response to the flight attendant at United Air insisting that a child with special needs be strapped into her own seat during takeoff speaks directly to our inability as a culture to walk in the shoes of another who is suffering and struggling in ways that we cannot see.

Elit Kirschenbaum, mom of a 3-year-old child with special needs, sat in first class with her entire family and insisted that her daughter be allowed to sit on her lap. As I read the tweets, articles and interviews, the story unfolds like a Shakespearian tragedy.

Kirschenbaum faced backlash from social commenters who accused her of attempting to take advantage of the system and the rules of the airline. It looked like she knew that her daughter would not be able to sit alone, whether in first class or economy seating, and that she purchased a ticket because legally her daughter needed one due to her age. In order to save money or cut corners she purchased an economy ticket, maybe betting on the airline making an exception for her daughter with special needs. In response, Kirschenbaum said that she and her husband had purchased the tickets with frequent-flyer miles and were only later assigned the business class seats at the airport.

RELATED: What Not to Say to Moms of Kids With Special Needs

Parenting a child with special needs is not a job or lifestyle for the faint of heart. It can be extraordinarily isolating due to the small percentage of people who are caring for, educating or parenting children with special needs. The loneliness that can come from the desire to be understood, connected and seen as more that just parents of children with special needs is at times blinding. Before I was a mother of child with special needs, I recall watching children with disabilities and their care givers with a heart filled with pity and despair. “I could never do that," I felt. And honestly, the sight of children with special needs scared me.

Rarely or never do I expect others to make adjustments or even understand what I need to do in order to support my child with special needs.

It’s not uncommon that as humans we only have an understanding for what we have experienced or seen up close and personal, and maybe that's what's happening here. We tend to suffer from a great deal of “otherness” that in and of itself is just an inability to be compassionate for those experiencing hardships we may never endure. The thought of our own suffering—or of those closest to us—is so frightening that we do all we can to keep ourselves as far away from it all.

As a mother of a child with Down syndrome, I understand personally the demands it takes to prepare my child for anything that we do outside of our normal routine. Usually I have to make some type of considerations for what is available and required in every environment and what I will need to provide. I measure all of this against my child’s historical reaction, progress and concrete needs. Rarely or never do I expect others to make adjustments or even understand what I need to do in order to support my child and keep him as comfortable as possible. The only exception is when we are in an environment designed specifically to support the needs of people with special needs, otherwise it’s all up to me and my family support system.

Often I forgo events and experiences I’d love to participate in because the environment is not right for my son. Perhaps the noise level will exceed what is comfortable for my son. Even large crowds and an overload of energy can make the funniest events a nightmare when I’m with my son, who can be supersensitive in large groups.

Parenting a child with special needs is also all-consuming, exhausting and very emotionally costly. That’s not to say that it is not also rewarding, loving and joyful, but depending on the physical and emotional needs of your child, it is relentless. Parenting children of a certain age is relentless anyway, but add diapering, feeding and pushing a wheelchair around, and the impulse to lose one’s cool and mind is always near.

I’m attempting to paint a picture here of what it must be like for this mother who has gone to war with United Airlines because the flight attendant asked her to follow the rules that are designed to keep not only her daughter but also everyone else safe. There are rules in life that are just what they are. I believe, and I’m only speculating, that this mother is in need of something far more than a war with a huge corporation. This incident speaks to the mom who feels overwhelmed, invisible and exhausted by what her life might be or how she feels within. Just like a child who can’t communicate their frustration and fear will have a temper tantrum to get the attention they desire, so goes this mother. I can’t speak for others, but I know exactly what it feels like to desire special treatment due to an obvious challenge and when met with resistance, I turn into a whimpering child.

In my own life, I have been both the outwitted mother who felt she would manipulate the system and the rule-enforcing flight attendant.

Rather than take responsibility, Kirschenbaum made the flight attendant responsible by requesting special treatment. It’s a sad scenario and one that I understand too well.

Within this story of this mother, her daughter and the flight attendant is the need for someone to be right and someone else to be wrong. War. Kirschenbaum took to Twitter with the hashtag #UnitedWithIvy and chose to use her daughter’s disability to bring to light the issue that the flight attendant was not making a special exception for her and her family. If we take a step back, there are many opportunities and lessons here, greater than making anyone wrong. In my own life, I have been both the outwitted mother who felt she would manipulate the system and the rule-enforcing flight attendant.

As a parent of a child with special needs, what I see that we need most is to be seen as parents who are doing our best and who need community and support. A lot of support. Also, what if we were just willing to treat this mother as we would want to be treated if we were in her situation? Forget about casting blame and making either participant right or wrong. What if the flight attendant was just doing her job, which is to keep everyone safe and not at all attempting to humiliate this mother?

Compassion is the space where we allow our mistakes and missteps to occur without the need for retribution. Why? Because one day we will be the person in need of compassion. Life always circles back.

RELATED: 10 Ways to Advocate for Your Child With Special Needs

As a mother of child with special needs I’m often aware of the spaces within myself that I feel deserve extra because it will make my life easier. I’m aware of the entitled part of myself that wants special treatment, and when I'm honest and authentic, I can see that I often want to be seen and heard. I want to be supported without having to ask for it. I imagine that this mother and flight attendant's unwillingness to see one another’s positions inconvenienced everyone around them and those who were waiting to receive them when the flight landed. Compassion runs like water touching everything and everyone in its path when we are willing to put ourselves in the space of the other.

Image via ABC News

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