By Debra L. Karplus, MS, OTR/L
Your grandchild has a physical disability. Perhaps it is from a congenital disorder, something that happened before birth, such as a club foot which ultimately requires the use of leg braces; or the result of an incident at the time of birth such as anoxia from the cord around the neck which may result in cerebral palsy. Or possibly your grandchild suffers an illness or experiences an injury as a young child which requires them to use a walker or wheelchair.
Whether you are a first-time grandparent, or one who is seasoned, your idyllic images of grandparenting required a new uncharted paradigm. Norman Rockwell never painted it like this! Follow some simple guidelines and you can become the grandest grandparent on the planet.
Your grandchild’s parents need your positive spirit.
Though the child with the disability may not be your first grandchild, it may be the first child of your child. Raising a child with a disability requires more than the usual aptitude for feeding, diapering and playing with the baby. Maybe some medical or special services may be needed such as surgeries or procedures, special equipment, medications, or physical and occupational therapy at home, in a clinic or at school.
A disability in the family can strengthen or destroy a marriage. Your child needs you to be a positive force in their lives with compassion, empathy, support, and assistance as needed. Be intuitive about what kind of help is needed; hopefully the child will enjoy spending an occasional weekend at grandma and grandpa’s house. This gives parents a well-deserved break and everyone comes out a winner. It is okay to be overt and ask “What kind of help can I provide?” Be useful but be sensitive about not being intrusive or crossing boundaries.
Perhaps, most important, your grandchild’s parents, your adult child, need reassurance that the child’s disability is not their fault. Blame and self-punishment are destructive behaviors. Again, be positive!
Physical disability is not mental retardation.
Your grandchild may have a disability that is visible such as a flaccid arm or maybe one that is more subtle such as a heart condition. But a physical disability is not the same as developmental disability, mental retardation, or mental illness. Give your grandchild with a disability the same respect you would give any child or adult. No need to talk baby talk to your grandchild in a wheelchair; his comprehension is likely to be the same as other children his age. And don’t speak loudly to him or her; deafness or hearing loss is probably not involved with the disability either.
Be proud to be seen in public with your grandchild.
No child or adult wants to feel invisible. It’s perfectly acceptable to be a bragging grandparent. After all, isn’t bragging part of the job description of grandparent! Keep your digital camera close and take photos on every visit or outing. When your friends, neighbors, and workmates pull out their grandchild photos, be armed with your own. Focus on the wonderful qualities your grandchild has and on his or her strengths. Your grandson who uses a walker may have just won the school spelling bee; your granddaughter in a wheelchair may have judged earned a badge in Brownie scouts or may be learning to play clarinet.
Disability or not, no matter what age, children and adults have the same social, emotional, spiritual, intellectual needs as everyone else; we all need to matter and have purpose in the world. Become a self-proclaimed expert on your grandchild’s specific disability; learn what you can about the disability from books and online from reputable sources. No need to let others know that you have acquired all this new medical knowledge. Instead, use it to become a super grandparent.
Debra Karplus is an licensed occupational therapist, teacher, freelance writer for national magazines, baby boomer, and grandmother of two. Karplus lives in a Midwestern college town. Follow her blog at: http://debrakarplus.blogspot.com/
Debra L. Karplus, MS, OTR/L
registered occupational therapist