By: Hannah Sweiderk
“This is unbelievable! He is crazy!” The words, mumbled under a woman’s breath at a rest stop in North Carolina, stung.
He is not crazy.
He is my brother.
Brandt has lived with Smith-Lemli Opitz syndrome since birth, a rare condition that affects many parts of his body, and causes mental and physical disabilities. Now 27, Brandt has had lots of communicative difficulties growing up that have continued despite many years of speech therapy.
While I would not have expected the woman to understand what causes Brandt to exhibit behavior that deviates from social norms, her reaction speaks to a larger issue: we must be more mindful of the way we react to others who present or appear different than ourselves.
Most people’s initial reaction to seeing Brandt is to feel sorry for him, to wish he had been dealt a better hand. In reality, Brandt is a light in people's days. He is a joyful, energetic, go-lucky person. And he always has been. Brandt makes close bonds and has built himself a community of people who know and undoubtedly love his personality.
Just because he needs a little help doing everyday tasks does not mean he is someone we should feel sorry for. If anything, it is the complete opposite. Anyone who knows Brandt personally would say that he is celebrated. He does not let his disabilities get in the way of doing all the things he loves, especially when it comes to playing in the snow.
Brandt is all I have ever known, and, because of that, I realize my connection with him gives me a perspective that others may not have. However, as I’ve grown older and heard and seen others’ reactions to my brother, the more I am reminded of the stigmas that unfairly characterize Brandt or any disabled person.
When others say “Oh, I'm so sorry for you and your family,” I always respond with “No don't be, it's the best thing that ever happened to me.” No one fully gathers how serious I am with that statement until they meet Brandt themselves. What Brandt has taught me is irreplaceable.
Anyone who works closely with someone with disabilities would agree as well, and are quick to tell how much they love what they do and how it has given them different outlooks and perspectives on life, not only in their job but in everyday situations.
Every negative encounter my family and I have come across regarding reactions of other people to Brandt usually ends in a learning experience. It angers you seeing someone pick on your special-needs brother, especially a random stranger who caught him on a bad day. Although, at the end of the day, that bad encounter stems from the other person usually lacking personal experience with people with special needs.
It would be inaccurate to say that I have no clue where some mindsets stem from regarding negative perceptions. I understand what the lack of personal experience can do, and I also understand how that can affect one's actions. With that being said, interacting with people with special needs is a beautiful thing which should be celebrated.
Celebrating the newfound inclusivity of the special needs community will give more people a necessary frame of reference and touch more lives.