My 2015 was off to a great start. I’d made some time the week before to reflect on my goals for the new year and managed to take some action steps to making them happen. My sister-in-law graciously offered to babysit our kids on New Years Eve and my husband and I enjoyed one of the best dinners out we’ve had in some time. On New Years Day, we took our children out to experience the Mummers Parade, a loud, overstimulating Philadelphia tradition that my son, who has autism, not only managed but really enjoyed.
But then the buzz kill came.
Friday afternoon, I was scrolling through Facebook checking out my friends' new years wishes and pictures, feeling affirmed that all of us in our 40s can agree that 9pm is the new midnight, when I saw a photo come up that made me do a double-take. You may have seen it, too: It’s a picture of Sarah Palin's son, Trig, who has Down Syndrome, standing on a dog that looks like a medium-sized chocolate laborador retriever.
A friend of mine who is a vet had posted it and I quickly scanned the horrified comments. Disgusted that Palin had allowed her child to stand on and potentially injure the dog's spine, I stepped away from my laptop and took breaths. My husband quickly scanned the post and tried to cheer me up by reading that a number of people, in a refreshingly non-partisan moment, identified themselves as Republicans, animal lovers and condemned Palin’s stupidity, cruelty and lack of judgment.
What upset me the most about the photo was not only concern for the dog, but the thoughtlessness with which Palin put out the negative image of a child with a disability interacting with a dog, when so many of us know how profound, loving and healing the relationships between dogs and children with disabilities generally are. In my house, our life has been deeply enriched over the last year since we were fortunate enough to acquire a home companion dog, Hank, for my son George. George has learned so much about responsibility through walking Hank with me or his dad twice a day, through all kinds of weather, and by feeding Hank and learning Hank’s commands. But even more wonderful to see is the natural flowing of love between them: Hank makes George smile and laugh just by being there.
I know so many families like ours. So many children, teens and adults who have autism, Down Syndrome or intellectual disabilities learn and grow because of their service or companion dogs or just with the family pet. Yet the image that Sarah Palin, with her wide net of influence, puts out in the world with no apparent sense of shame is of her child potentially injuring a dog. And the image that we don’t see but that is even scarier is her, the adult in the room, who not only isn’t stopping Trig but who is taking the moment to get a photo and have a laugh.
It’s not any of my business how Palin parents Trig and I do my best to not judge other parents in my special needs tribe—there’s too much of that and it doesn’t help anyone. Each of us who lands in the proverbial Holland needs to find the best therapies, education and way of being with our kids without other parents telling us whether we’re doing okay or not. But this issue is not about parenting choices, it’s about safety, and parents don’t get a pass on that.
When we bring a child into the world, through birth or adoption, we make a commitment to keep that child safe, and we make the same commitment when we bring an animal into our home. When we have kids with special needs, it may take even more work to do the job of keeping our children safe — I get that. My son is almost 12 and while he’s getting better at crossing the street, it’s my responsibility to take his arm every single time he does it because he has not mastered that skill. When Palin lets Trig stand on the dog — besides the issue of potentially hurting the dog — she sets him up for thinking that behavior is okay. I dread thinking of him visiting another home and stepping on a sleeping dog while his parents are not paying attention.
What also makes me sad for Trig is the teachable moment that his mother missed while she was busy snapping the photo. Once she had removed him and told him we never step on animals, she could have praised his inventiveness and initiative for finding a way to reach the sink. “What else could you use to reach the sink, Trig?” she might have asked, giving him the opportunity to find a chair, stool or other appropriate means to reach his goal.
I’m not willing to let Palin’s poor judgment continue to cloud my 2015. I’d like to fill social media with beautiful images of people of all abilities taking care of their precious animal companions. If your child or someone you know has a special animal in his/her life, please share on the “New Normal” Facebook page and help us replace that disturbing image with ones that show respect, care and love between animals and their people.
Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer directs Jewish Learning Venture's Whole Community Inclusion, coordinates Celebrations! at Mishkan Shalom and loves writing/editing for "The New Normal." Check out her children's cookbook The Kitchen Classroom, written with supports for all kids.