For those of you who have typical children, the idea of only wanting your child to eat in the cafeteria sounds irrelevant – even silly. The truth is, for those of us with children with special needs, sometimes it’s one of our deepest desires. There are many things that parents of typical children take for granted, and eating in the cafeteria is one of them.

My son was about five years old when this happened to us. I was waiting for an IEP meeting at the front desk when I overheard a discussion. It was something like: “These kids are not capable enough to be taken to the cafeteria for lunch. They are going to embarrass everyone else around.” I remember hearing those words and feeling my body feel frozen as if suddenly the temperature dropped to -50 degrees. With my last drop of strength, I managed to articulate a question: “Which kids are you talking about?” “The disabled ones,” someone replied and walked away.

That person worked at my children’s school. She was tall, smart and self-confident. Her last name was followed by the abbreviation of her doctorate degree; however, she was completely blinded by her prejudice. The worst part was, she didn’t know that I was the mother of two children that, according to her, belonged with the group of “those kids” who didn’t deserve to eat lunch in the cafeteria with their peers.

Right after that incident, the time for my meeting came and the Individualized Education Plan meeting started. As is usual in this kind of meetings, the first question was directed to me: “What are your hopes for your child, mom?” I replied, “I want my child to go to the cafeteria.”

I’m blessed to say that the person sitting at the other end of the table was the staffing specialist that is still working with my family. I’m happy to say that he didn’t doubt a second to say: “Yes, I agree this would be a great opportunity to him.”

What sounded like the most bizarre and ridiculous hope that a parent could have, turned into a path of faith and love for my children. It’s not that I didn’t love them before, I always did, but prior to that I really didn’t know how they were perceived, and how much I was limiting them by letting others segregate them based on their diagnosis.

This experience was an eye-opener to me in many ways. As a parent, you usually feel lost and very intimidated when sitting around that table where your child’s life and future is discussed. We are led to believe that the law has all the answers, but it’s not always true, most of the answers are provided though, by people who believe in you and your child. Sometimes, it takes only one person to change the whole future of your child.

That same day I realized that by protecting my children from others, I was depriving them of the most natural right of any human being: the right to belong, to be challenged, to make mistakes, and to learn to be the best they can be by utilizing their abilities to their maximum extent.

That dramatic moment that put me face to face with prejudice hurt me in a good way because it made me aware of my role as an advocate. It made me rethink the future that I wanted to give to my children. It made me grow, and it made me believe.

That day I realize that there is a reason behind every circumstance and there is a big lesson for us all behind every challenge. No child deserves to be considered an embarrassment to others, and no human being, regardless of his or her degrees, has the right to underestimate others based on race, abilities, accent, culture or sexuality.

After that meeting, my child started eating with his non-disabled peers in the cafeteria, and the dream kept growing, so he started attending a mainstream classroom for small periods of time during his school day. Was it hard to him? Being realistic it was harder to me. It was me who needed to be re-educated, he was only a child being led by my faith and my fears as a parent.

Dreams are magical but never easy, so in the meantime, I assumed the responsibility of assuring my child’s well being along with his sister, who started school in a very different position, having great opportunities from the very beginning.

In the process of becoming the person I am today, I’ve learned to accept that the simplest things tend to be challenging for us, and we have only two choices. We can embrace the challenges and make them exciting, or we can lose the war without even trying.

We have adopted the first option as a family, and we have learned the most amazing lessons. If you ask us, we always win because we believe in each other, and we have the ability to find the opportunity where others can only see challenges and limitations. We are blessed to have discovered a new way of celebrating abilities. Still, it’s hard to deal with those whose beliefs are different.

Ayelén, my daughter, is 8 years old and is in her second year of school, fully integrated into a mainstream classroom. Her general teacher, Mrs. Johnson, reminds me every day that you don’t need to be a special needs teacher in order to be special, you just need to believe. Thanks, Mrs. Johnson.

Emir is 11 and he’s in 4th grade. He’s techy, smart, confident and very proud to be the only child in his classroom allowed to use a calculator. He’s managed to gain the heart of many who are tireless advocates for his well-being. He’s lucky to have a full team of people who love and believe in him, and I have to give him all the credit for it. Thanks, Mrs. Hurtado, Mrs. Fooley, Mrs. Kortee, and many more.

My children are both the most capable and independent children of their age I’ve ever known. (If you’ll let me brag about my children for a moment!)

So, when I’m facing hard times or feeling blue, I think of them having lunch at school, in the cafeteria where they embarrass no one. That always feeds my heart both love and strength to believe that we all have the right and the ability to accomplish anything when we are given the opportunity to show our abilities, instead of being punished for our weaknesses, which by the way, are just a small component of our humanity.

Finally, thanks, Casey Foote for being that person at the other end of the table who has always supported our inclusive dreams, and thanks, Donna Djerf for being the tireless advocate who represents the heart and soul of our school district.

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