I have been treating a little boy in my clinic for well over a year now, in fact, I saw him just today. I’m not going to tell you his name, age or diagnosis, not just for legal reasons, but also, because for the purpose of the story, it doesn’t matter. But I will tell you that I adore him. If I was allowed to have favorite patients, he would be high on my list and he has captured my heart in a special way.

A few months ago, I ordered a special piece of medical equipment for him. It took months to get it created and adjusted properly. We had to go through his pediatrician, the company that makes it, repeated appointments to fix things that weren’t right and on and on. And finally, about a month ago, he got it. This is not his first piece of equipment, but it was the first that he might actually use and it is important for his wellbeing and function.

We worked hard to get him comfortable using it and made a BIG fuss over how cool it was and things were going really, really well. Last week, he and his mom went to Target to do some shopping. As they were walking through the store, a young boy sitting in the shopping cart noticed the piece of equipment and like any kid, was curious about it. And so he asked his mother why my patient had that.

And her reply was “well honey, he’s different.”

That one word, that one 3 syllable, 9 letter word, undid months of work. It crushed a little boy’s self esteem and it set him back weeks in terms of his function.

The question in and of itself is completely appropriate. That boy in the cart had every right and reason to ask his mother, and there are a million great ways to answer that question (“why don’t you ask him?” “It helps him do x, y, or z” “It makes him jump really high!” etc, etc, etc). But instead, she chose not to explain it at all, but instead to label.

Her response was possibly the worst thing that she could’ve chosen to reply with. It instantaneously created an otherness, one that we had all been desperately trying to avoid, and set it right in my patient’s lap. It was an otherness he had not yet come to fully recognize, but is now hyperaware of. That one stupid word literally changed his life.

The problem with labeling someone as different, especially with the tone that is so often used, is that it separates people into typical and atypical. It makes the group that are somehow atypical feel like they don’t belong or can’t fit in. And in the case of my patient, all he wants in the world is to belong. To have a group of friends, to play in a typical fashion, to be anything but different.

And he isn’t different. He’s a little boy. He loves Disney movies and pirates and cars and everything that kids his age love. He skips the number 17 when he counts. He is obsessed with superheroes and will do just about anything if you can make it into a game about Spiderman. He is not “different.” He may move in a way that the rest of us don’t or require help with things that other kids can do alone, but he isn’t different. He’s bright and fun and loving and everything that you want a child to be. His sameness is so much greater than his difference, but for some reason, no one can seem to get past the things that don’t fit.

I wish I could’ve met the mother in Target that day. Not because I want to scream or yell (though I do, a little), but because it could’ve been an incredible opportunity to open someone’s eyes to how powerful their words are. I wish I could’ve shown her how important a question that was and how important her answer was. I wish I could’ve educated her on all the ways my patient is not different, or on all the ways that using different in that tone is a terrible thing to do. I wish I could’ve helped her to understand how different can be good, how different can sometimes even be better.

We must do a better job of explaining and introducing disabilities and differently abled people to our children. By making these differences a negative we do a great disservice to these children and adults who have incredible talents, amazing personalities and bright futures that we completely miss because of our preconceived expectations about them. We need to teach our children to look beyond the things that give them pause, to push through their unintentional prejudices and realize that underneath what we may see as differences are often layers of sameness.

10 Responses to ““Different””

  • Thank you. I could go on and on about why this is important, but I won’t. :)

    I’d want to say to the woman that different is not a negative, because it sure sounds like her tone was exactly that.


  • I have to say that I feel the word different isn’t at issue, but in fact the TONE used to describe him that way is the problem. Making different somehow mean less than. If that had been my child asking me about his device, I might also have used the word different. But in a way that suggests we are all different in many ways, and those differences make us all special and wonderful and unique.


    Katie Reply:

    @lonek8, That’s more what I meant. Different in and of itself isn’t bad, but “different” needs to be removed from everyone’s vocabulary. Diversity is wonderful, being labeled “different” is not so much.


  • Allison:

    Thank you for this! I have a son in occupational therapy for issues related to an ENT accident where he lost half of one ear drum and a small part of the other. Ever since the accident he does things a little differently and when adults react like that it leads to their children thinking even worse. My son’s problems are in no way very difficult and he will outgrow most with surgery time and additional OT and PT but these kind of attitudes affect him,]. I can’t imagine how crushed your patient must have felt. He’s lucky to have someone who cares about him so much as his PT to help him!


  • Kimybeee:

    This is me showing my ability to argue either side of a disagreement.

    If the child was young enough to sit in a cart then he probably had already asked the mother a million other questions that day. She probably barely glanced the child in questions direction before answering her own child in a way that would not set off another million questions. She was maybe tired from working or taking care of her family all day. Maybe she was struggling to figure out how to get the most out of what few dollars she had at the store. There are way more reasons that she would answer the child’s question in such a short way than there are reasons for her to make a kid feel bad.

    With none of us having been there we have no way of knowing her tone of voice or the way she intended what she may have thought was an innocent answer. Did it suck, yes – do most people intend to be insensitive – no!

    As the parent of the offended child I would have marched over to the kid and mother and explained what said device was for and ask the curious kid if he had any questions. This is a far DIFFERENT approach to the problem than walking away and being upset about it later. It would also give the child with the device an opportunity to see that he can interact and socialize because HE IS DIFFERENT rather than trying to be like everybody else. That isn’t happening for him at least right now and even if nobody likes it he has to deal with a lot of major suck!

    I would rather teach the child to embrace who he is and learn to be happy in his own skin instead of watching him be broke down over and over and watch it happen like I was helpless to change it. Being proactive for your kids is way better than being reactive.

    I honestly believe the best thing I have told my kids over the years is that they have a voice and they need to use it. As young adults they are very confident and independent and successful at almost everything they try. They are not afraid to tackle anything. They are also not afraid to fail or be disappointed.

    I don’t see different as a bad thing. I see it as a chance to be one of a kind and show the world what you are made of. Embrace the challenges instead of being defeated by them. Be the one with the biggest smile and the best laugh in the room!

    My life includes all kinds of different, we cherish each and every one of them!!


    Katie Reply:

    @Kimybeee, I think that different isn’t inherently bad, I think that “different” in the tone that it was said, is a very bad thing. And while it would’ve been great for this child to speak up, he is pretty young and it’s a bit past his reasoning capacity right now. I really think that it’s not too much to ask parents, even frustrated ones, to be considerate to other children. The mother of the child that I know did not want to confront this mom, she just wanted to get out of the situation, which is what a lot of us would want, too.

    I just don’t think it’s fair to blame the mother of the child I know, as she didn’t do anything wrong. She has raised her son to be independent, kind and very confident, but she can’t control what other people do nor force him to be unaffected by their words. And that’s what I’m asking. I’m asking people to consider their words and tone and how it might impact others and that it’s worth it to take an extra second to think before speaking.


    Kimybeee Reply:

    I didn’t say the mother was at fault. And you gave no info about the child. It isn’t unreasonable for a parent of a child any age to speak up in a calm manner and explain to the child with the question what the device is for. My kids grew up with no impression that kids were different from them. They all have feelings and words hurt. They were also taught not to make fun of or speak rudely to others.

    I also didn’t say that the parent with the different comment was excused from insensitive behavior. I just think that even though she said it, we have no way of knowing her intent.

    This kid has a rough road ahead and will need the skills to grow up happy.


    Katie Reply:

    @Kimybeee, I agree with you that he needs skills to grow up happy, unquestionably. I just don’t think we can put all the responsibility on the parents of special needs kids. I don’t know what the other mother’s intent was, but my hope is that by having this discussion, maybe someone who would’ve given the same answer will take an extra second and consider what the impact of their words and tone will be.

  • Viviane:

    Unfortunately, if this is the first time, it won’t be the last time your patient (you could have given him a nam) will be confronted to this kind of reaction. And you cannot educate everybody, or teach a lesson to all the people you meet. So I think that this kid will have to live with it, learn how to be less or not affected by what people he doesn’t know might say. As a lot of “different” kids of adults I know, he will grow stronger for it. I do not mean that people don’t need to be educated to “difference”, though…


  • I’m nearly able-bodied, and never appeared any different physically, aside from being so short on the height/weight curve I didn’t fit into any discernible percentile. “Different” was something that was unspoken. No one ever pointed to me and said “different” or saw anything obviously different about me. But it was in the way I felt as I struggled to fit in and find my social groups in middle school and high school. It was in the way I chose to dress because I didn’t want to blindly conform to the masses. And while those are differences that I somewhat chose, they were still enough to stigmatize me and make me feel “other”. Calling out someone’s “other-ness” does internal damage. Sure, we all need to buck up and learn to be assertive and develop some self-advocacy, but our job as parents is to have in our arsenal quick and satisfying answers to awkward questions. Like, India Arie was singing the ABC’s with Elmo, and my kids pointed out that she looks like our nanny. Awkward moment? Or teachable moment? “Yes,” I said, “She also has brown skin, like Donna.” I had an exasperating long weekend with two-and-a-half-year-old twins who have forgotten what sleeping is, pooped in the crib (diapers off), and I can’t afford preschool or the nanny. Exasperation is no excuse for creating “otherness” and offense.


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I'm Katie, a 30-year-old, wife, mom, former teacher-turned PT, who also had brain surgery in November of 2007. This blog chronicles my daily life, from mundane to crazy, often with far too much detail. Sit down, get comfortable and stay for a while.
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