How Exclusion Shapes Bravery
By Marcella Eubanks
While serving my country in Iraq and Afghanistan, I was there to accomplish a mission. But I was able to experience humanity in a different way. As a physical therapist assistant, I had the honor of rehabilitating individuals with acute and chronic conditions, helping them embrace a new level of function, and negotiate barriers in their homes and in public spaces. My heart was content and fulfilled until, that is, I came face to face with a disorder that I knew very little about when my son, Brandon, was diagnosed with autism.
My husband and I could not have planned for this. What would we have to do differently? I began to immerse myself in research on therapies, treatments, symptoms, outcomes. What’s play therapy, behavioral therapy, socialization, pragmatics, sensory overload, accommodations? A new term emerging every treatment visit, each therapist or doctor providing a new piece of the puzzle.
When school started, Brandon began in a traditional classroom setting. The next year, it was recommended that he be placed in a self-contained classroom, where he was separated from his neurotypical peers. When his speech therapist told me he really needed socialization, I asked, how do I go about that? Must I have a conversation with other parents, discuss his therapeutic goals, apologize if he doesn't interact the way they believed he should? When searching for a weighted vest online to possibly help his attention at school, I asked, why can't I purchase this at a store? How do I even know if this is going to fit or work?
At every play venue we visited, the questions continued: Is there a quiet place we can go if he needs to calm down? Will the instructor understand if he doesn’t follow directions? Can I climb this inflatable bounce house to make sure no one messes with him, because he’s not able to tell me he needs help? (I climbed into many bounce houses.) Autism, like many disorders or disabilities, isn’t always visually apparent. My son could not participate in play, an everyday activity that he needed, and that made us feel excluded. But my family couldn't be the only ones facing these challenges, right?
It then became clear to me that I needed to create a place not only for Brandon but for children of all abilities.
Bravery Kids Gym is a place where all children, with and without disabilities, can learn, play and grow together. Physical development, cognition, communication, and social development, along with a strong sensory component, create the foundation for the equipment and activities the gym provides. Everything inside of Bravery has purpose and, when matched with intent, can be used as a platform to encourage child development in many areas. For parents, this setting is useful to track achievement milestones and raise awareness about early intervention services, which is key for children with developmental delays. Most importantly, from the child’s view, it all presents as fun.
Learning from Diversity
When Bravery opened on July 16, 2016, I realized that only a small part of the work was done. The concept was all rainbows in my mind, but would it work? Will people get it, accept it, understand? I had a front row seat to watch children with developmental disabilities, physical disabilities, and neurotypical children interact. Parent interaction was highly important as well. Not every moment was harmonious, but they were moments nevertheless.
I’ve seen parents meet for the first time, talk about concerns for their children and exchange tips on special diets and resources. A social butterfly attach themselves to a child who’s shy and pull them into a game of imaginative play. A nonverbal child who is not afraid to jump into the foam pit, giving others courage to do the same. A child who arrives using a walker only to drop it at the door and participate in a way he never has before. A hyperactive child who’s able listen to a story because his sensory need is being met by sitting on a compliant surface.
Asking questions, listening, and observing adults and children in this environment allowed me to recognize the external factors that shape behaviors that lead to each interaction. I was then able to make changes to the layout of the gym and my business plan that would allow beautiful moments to happen more often.
Sometimes, we just need to share the same space with people who are different from us to understand what actually connects us.
Solve for One, Extend to Many
Brandon has difficulty expressing and controlling his emotions. It’s even more complicated in an environment with lots going on around him. He has meltdowns or screams when situations become overwhelming. Ultimately, I want my son to be able to build tolerance and learn how to express himself without resorting to disruptive behaviors. But this is a process. I realized I needed to provide clear options for children and parents who face similar experiences within the walls of Bravery.
Bravery’s Safe Play Policy stresses the fact that we understand children may get overstimulated, so we provide options to assist the parent in that event. The sensory room, which stays dark, is equipped with fiber optic lights, bubble tube and a hammock swing that can be used to redirect the child’s focus. The quiet room provides families with privacy, comfortable seating, and minimal distractions to help control sensory input while they are working through an intense moment. We offer accommodations, such as noise-cancelling headphones, weighted vests, and fidget toys to those who need them. Lastly, if none of the support options work, we offer a raincheck to customers who need to try again on another day. The policy is in place for anyone to use.
Having the policy in place makes the action of learning about your child and trying different methods of resolution an acceptable thing to do in a public space. What works for one may not work for others, but it creates the opportunity for parents to find out what works for them.
According to the CDC, an estimated one in six children in the U.S. have one or more developmental disabilities and one in 59 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism. There’s no way we can ignore those facts. We must raise awareness, design our environments and play spaces differently, and shift our culture to be more inclusive.
The message of inclusion for me is about accepting and understanding differences for all people. To include means giving a sense of belonging. When we enter a space that is familiar and comfortable, we don’t always see that it may not be designed with everyone in mind. It takes a conscious effort to identify who is excluded, learn from one another, and solve problems based on these experiences. We should be Brave and implement that thought process throughout our lives.
About the Author: Marcella Eubanks
Marcella is the founder of Bravery Kids Gym in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Connect with BKG on social media and visit www.braverykidsgym.com for more information on services and events.