My parents came to the United States from Korea in the early 1960s to further their education. We moved often in my early years following their places of study and employment. While living in inner city Chicago in the early 1970s, it was rare to see Asians. Even though I spoke English fluently, I remember being teased often in elementary school and being stared at by strangers as if I were from another planet because I looked different.
A few years later in the suburbs of Memphis, Tennessee, it was a very different population, but no better. I clearly recall being teased with Chinese chants even by adults at my elementary school as I passed in the hallway, mumbling under my breath that I was Korean, not Chinese. Thankfully, despite these racist remarks, I always managed to find classmates and neighbors who were willing to take the time to get to know me to realize that we actually had much in common.
I dreaded my final elementary school move to Virginia Beach, thinking about having to be judged and teased because of who I was, isolated because of my ethnicity, discriminated against because of my looks. Much to my surprise, about half of my classmates were Asians. I easily found a place to belong.
My earlier childhood experience is not much different from what many kids still experience today, including my own daughter who is intellectually disabled. Though she has no outward appearance of a disability, she has been segregated from her peers at school, teased for not being able to keep up, stared at by people who don’t understand her behavioral outbursts, and isolated for not understanding the rules of play. She is a stranger in her own neighborhood playground because she is bused to another school in the county.
I try my best to make sure she’s included in school and extra-curricular activities and that others understand her disability. I don’t want people to be afraid to talk with her or play with her just because she can’t do everything they do or may not act the way they expect her to. I don’t want her to feel isolated or excluded or teased. I am so grateful to the friends she has made over the past few years that genuinely care for her and help her and give her a sense of belonging, which is what we all want – to belong.
Just like other parents, I have hopes and dreams for my child. After a year of advocating, she is finally being included in the general education class alongside her peers. I want her to learn from her classmates how to work hard, how to be a good friend, and how to be respectful towards others. I want her to become an active and contributing member of her community. I want her to know she’s special, but no more special than any other child.
My real hope is not just that she would learn, but that she would also teach. I hope she will teach others not to be afraid of those different from us, but to embrace our differences. I hope she brings out the creativity in teachers to find exceptional teaching methods. My greatest hope is that she would teach a generation of students at her school to be patient with those who can’t think or do as quickly, to be more compassionate for those who struggle, to be accepting of others who may not look or act like us, and more understanding of those with a different perspective.
Much like Martin Luther King, Jr., I have a dream that my child will one day live in a nation where she will not be judged by her disability, but by the content of her character.
Stephanie Kim lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with her two daughters Maria and Julia. Her younger daughter Julia has an intellectual disability. Stephanie is the Director of Finance for the Va. Tobacco Commission and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.