We live in a time of growing acceptance for people with disabilities—a time when we celebrate National Down Syndrome Day and Autism Acceptance Month. Classrooms are more inclusive, children's literature increasingly features more disabled characters, and we're seeing models of all abilities in advertisements.
With all that in mind, I have to wonder why I keep seeing stories about kids with disabilities not getting invited to birthday parties, or about no one coming to their parties? We have all these other inclusive, accepting spaces, so why are kids' birthday parties so often a place of exclusion?
I'm not sure of the reason why, but I know it needs to change. Jennifer Engele, mom to Sawyer, a young boy with Down Syndrome, feels the same way. She recently wrote a beautiful open letter on Facebook to the parent of the child who didn't invite her son to a birthday party. It's been shared over 27,000 times, and when you read it, you'll understand why.
In the letter, Engele wrote, "I understand that your child recently delivered birthday invitations to the entire class except to Sawyer, who was not invited. I also understand that this was not an oversight on your part, that it was an intentional decision to not to include my son."
She went on to explain that she doesn't expect her son to be invited to every party and that she, in fact, only invited a few close friends to Sawyer's last birthday party, but that she could only come to one conclusion as to why Sawyer was the only child excluded from this party.
"I know it's not because he's mean, you couldn't meet a happier child," she wrote. "I know it's not because he's not fun, he has a great sense of humour and an infectious laugh. I know it's not because your child and him don't get along, he's brought up your child's name on several occasions. The only reason why you decided it was OK to not invite my son to your child's birthday party is because he has Down Syndrome."
Engele wrote that she was not angry at this parent, but rather thought it was an opportunity for them to learn more about her son and Down Syndrome. "People with Down Syndrome want the same things that you and I want," she wrote. "They want to have close relationships, they want to feel love, they want to contribute, they want to have meaningful lives, and they want to go to birthday parties."
This mom also shared how she was once scared and misinformed about Down Syndrome: "I was so worried that my other children wouldn't be able to connect with him in the same way as other siblings do. But I was wrong. In fact, my children are closer than most other siblings are. Having a brother with Down Syndrome has helped shape them into compassionate individuals who know that just because you may be a little different that others, that it's OK."
Engele concluded her letter by writing that she hoped this parent, though it can be difficult, would find a way to talk to their child about Sawyer and why it's not okay to exclude him. "They will remember the time that their parent said to them, it's not OK to leave someone out because of their disability, race, or gender," she wrote. "As parents, we want our children to be liked, to have friends, and to not be left behind. And how we do this is by setting examples ourselves and encouraging them to make choices that they might not be old enough to fully comprehend. But they will look back one day with understanding and the knowledge that you have shared with them."
Since her original post, Engele has updated it with the news that this story has a happy ending: "The parent read my letter, spoke to their child about Sawyer, and the child created a special birthday invite for Sawyer. Of course he's been beaming ever since and can't stop talking about it."
Yay for Sawyer! And kudos to his mom for advocating for her son, and all people who are "different," and hopefully making us all think about how we can encourage our kids to make the choice to be kind and help create an accepting, inclusive world.