By Jill Samonte, MPA, MS, Accessibility & Inclusion Specialist, DuPage Children’s Museum
I was recently at the Abilities Expo at the Schaumburg Convention Center. One of the vendors, wheel-life.org was selling t-shirts and other marketing items with the wheelchair symbol on it with different sayings. The postcard I got states: KEEP CALM, It’s just a wheelchair. I also bought a shirt with Kindness is Contagious superimposed over a wheelchair with a heart for a wheel.
My mom was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis before I was born and progressively got worse over the years to where she used a cane, a walker, a walker with wheels, an electric scooter, an electric chair, and then an electric wheelchair. I walked around the Abilities Expo surrounded by people in wheelchairs with vendors promoting and selling services associated with wheelchairs. What an amazing experience to be surrounded by those with disabilities. I couldn’t get over the services being offered and the connections everyone was making. I texted my sister and told her that it would have been a game-changer if my family could have attended a resource fair such as this to learn about support and to normalize the chair.
My role at DuPage Children’s Museum started out as a part-time Community Outreach Coordinator and turned into a full-time Accessibility & Inclusion Specialist. Some of my responsibilities are to learn about best practices, educate co-workers and staff, implement programming, and stay in networks to keep on top of everything related to accessibility, inclusion, diversity, and equity.
It’s no surprise that I ended up in this position and am very passionate about accessibility, having grow up with a parent who grew up in, and aged in, a not very adaptive world. Getting in and out of cars, buildings, homes, restrooms, and more was always a challenge for my mom. So was getting through crowded stores, restaurants, and sidewalks. My mom grew up in a time when children and women had a much quieter voice, and, therefore, she wasn’t very comfortable with asserting herself, for herself. She was always apologizing to others for being in their way. My sister and I grew into my mom’s biggest advocates, asking for accessible routes and accommodations and assertively voicing her needs.
DuPage Children’s Museum is proud to be accessible and inclusive. With every exhibit design, several things are taken into consideration regarding accessibility: all pathways, doorways, and access around exhibits are measured to allow for wheelchairs to pass; floor coverings are designed to be low profile; exhibit table tops are designed both for child height and table top play for those using wheelchairs; and gross motor exhibits like the Big Lawn are designed to include an accessible experience.
If you come to visit the Museum and see someone different than you and your child, your child will likely play with them regardless of a difference. However, kids are curious about everything and seeing something different may spark questions. If your child has questions, that’s ok. It’s important to engage your little one in conversation and help them to understand.
If an older child asks why someone is in a wheelchair you can be very matter-of-fact with an answer like, “I’m not sure, but the wheelchair helps them get around.” If you notice your younger child just looking, you can approach the situation by simply saying something like, “I see that you are curious about that person, it’s ok to say hi.” In that instance, you are modeling behavior that says that person is just a person and there is no difference in the way you treat them.
Children look to the important adults in their lives for cues on how to act/react to different things. Modeling the behavior you hope to see in your children can go a long way. Kindness truly is contagious.
Jill Samonte has an MS in Counseling Psychology and an MPA in Emergency & Disaster Management. As the Accessibility & Inclusion Specialist, she ensures that all visitors have the opportunity to enjoy our Museum and interact with floor exhibits. Jill also goes out into the community with programming and portable Museum exhibits.