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Learning from Disabled Kids

Her body shakes and her already large eyes widen. Drool dribbles from her open lips to the wet spot on her pink T-shirt, and her wrists quiver and stiffen, leaving her hands resting at an awkward-looking angle to her unnaturally thin arms.
Leila tightens her grip on my arm as the seizure assails her frail little frame. Seizures are not a new struggle for her. In fact, it is her illness that brings her to the horse barn every Sunday for an hour of therapeutic horseback riding.
Often when I am helping support Leila in the saddle, I contemplate how tremendously frustrating it must be for her to not be able to take off her sweatshirt when she gets hot, or ask for a tissue, or even just control her own body during the seizures. Yet all the years I have helped prop Leila up on the back of her horse, I have never heard her fuss. With her gentle, quiet manner and the goofy smile that displays her surprisingly white teeth, I feel lucky to be able to spend time with Leila each week. I truly believe that Leila and many of the other disabled children at the barn have each taught me a valuable lesson in treatment and respect of others, especially those whom we perceive as “different.”
I will admit that when I first pulled on my filthy leather horse-riding boots and trudged into the Lift Me Up! barn, I was nervous. I felt a twinge of discomfort around the plethora of wheelchairs, gaping mouths, and strange squawking noises uttered by the children. I didn’t know what to say when I led a quiet little girl’s horse round and round the ring, and I was alarmed when a little boy grabbed a fistful of my hair and refused to release it. The idea of having to wipe a kid’s drool was frightening, as were the moans and groans I struggled to interpret.
Those first few weeks of volunteer work were challenging; I always felt awkward and unsure of how to approach all these unfamiliar little ones. As the weeks went by and I met and chatted with more of the riders, I gradually began to feel more relaxed around them. I came to recognize that like my peers at school, each child had a very distinct personality. I discovered Kate’s love of all things Disney—particularly Winnie the Pooh—as well as Skye’s fondness for the barn cat. Abby enjoyed picking flowers, and every week I was given an update on Joselito’s pet lizard and puppy.
When I come to Lift Me Up! now, it is with a very different attitude than when I began working there. I love the kids, and I savor my time with them. Their disabilities no longer startle me, and I feel that I can see past these illnesses that mask their futures and simply connect with the kids inside. Consequently, my approach toward people with differences outside the barn has changed too. Missing legs and deformed faces don’t distress me anymore. Instead, I feel a great respect for these individuals who are just as unique and hard-working as the rest of society, and I am saddened by the majority of the public’s ability to overlook such wonderful personalities and succumb to fear and unease, as I once did.
A few weeks ago, I spotted a little boy who rides at Lift Me Up! while getting a burger at a restaurant. Before, I would have pretended not to see him squealing at his table and slurping cherry coke up a straw. Instead, I walked up to the table and greeted Jack and his family. I hope the people at the neighboring table’s thought twice about their judging stares as Jack stood up and gave me a big hug.



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