The day I took my eight-pound baby girl home from the hospital, I knew God had clearly led me to let her life—one that was “different,” “non-typical,” “special,” diagnosed with Down Syndrome—SHINE in this world. The real world. Not the world that is set apart or secluded for the “other.” No. She was to be included, so that the real world could see that we are all created in the likeness of Christ. She is more alike than different. That was (and is) the path for Addison Grace.
It’s funny to think back and remember my passion on the topic. I had never interacted in the special needs community. A differently-abled child had never touched my life. Perhaps that’s why I was determined to value her at the intrinsic level of her worth and not make it into something it was not—“less than.”
This played out in our home beautifully. She is the oldest of our four children. As each child was added to the Tribe, each participated fully in relationship, responsibilities, activities, interactions, education and faith. Of course we offered options and choice, but being excused because of diagnosis or challenge was never an option. We cultivated a spirit of “CAN,” valuing growth. For us, that means the value of trying your best, and stretching into the person God created you to be. And of course, we slathered it all with a heaping dose of fun.
Accommodations were (and sometimes still are) made to enable Addie’s full participation. But the thought of exclusion based on an extra chromosome never even occurred to our Party of Six. As Addie has grown older and entered the teen years, the gap between her and her typically developing peers has grown wider. I had been somewhat prepared. Other parents and educators had suggested I expect that gap to grow, but I'm stubbornly optimistic in my outlook.
I believed our normal would be abnormal. Contrary to some Down Syndrome myths, Addie is fully included in her middle school. She is an active participant in her community. She learns and grows alongside other kids her age and has incredible potential—just like anyone else. She experiences a wide range of emotions just like any child. And in so many ways, she is more alike than she is different.
But sure enough, as the kiddos in her middle school classes begin to engage in pop culture and Snap-Chatting their weekend activities, Addie is sometimes left on the other side of the chasm, still enjoying Disney's latest episodes of Dog With a Blog.
For the last few years, I had avoided birthday parties outside of our extended family for this very reason. And as her fifteenth birthday approached, Addie became quite adamant that she wanted to invite her school friends to attend. My heart sank, my stomach was in knots and my mind raced. The days of advocating for inclusion, fighting for fair and appropriate classroom settings, championing activities and events that enabled her to live life fully, alongside any other child in our community, had all gone in our favor. We held the banner of “More Alike Than Different” high. And building a life outside of the box felt normal.
I began to see this new and growing social gap as an obstacle—standing in the way of the life she wanted (or at least in the way of this one birthday celebration). Was I wrong all along? Have I been lying to myself? Does she truly have a friend? Just one? Is the best behind us? Have we finally arrived at the precipice of a gap that is only now impossible to overcome?
But I was about to experience what outside the box looks like again. What filled the gap in the past would be the same things to fill the gap now. I had to learn and grow.
Isn't that how any of us get from one place to the next? Life's road is fraught with pot-holes and detours and dead-ends along the way. There is always a precipice opportunity—a place where the gap sometimes seems impossible to overcome. And here is the moment of opportunity: Will I stay stuck or will I leap?
We decided a long time ago that fear would never make our decisions for us. Faith can never stand for that. And so Addie hand-wrote and hand-delivered five invitations to her friends at school. There would be a stubbornly optimistic birthday party in spite of the gap.
I was so nervous, I actually texted her homeroom teacher for an extra set of eyes and ears, and asked my other daughters to please be sure it all went well. I don’t know what I meant by “well” or what I was expecting. Rejection? Unkind snickers? Simply ignoring the invitation?
My mom had always told me, “One friend, Jenny. We all just need one friend.” So that was my prayer: “Oh God, please! Just one RSVP.”
And God was stubbornly optimistic. As usual.
stubbornly, ridiculously optimistic karaoke party for a fifteen year old girl who is more alike than different.
Toward the end of the night, when everyone had gone home, one friend remained: Addie’s “best friend.” I watched as Addie sat on the couch, next to her BFF and read her birthday card aloud. The words were so powerful, and kind, and heart-felt. And I’ve never seen Addie moved to such emotion as a result. As she choked through the sentences, and wiped tears from her eyes, I witnessed true friendship.
I caught another glimpse of what is truly possible when we believe we are all more alike than different. I had a front-row seat to the spectacular implications of true and full inclusion. I watched two amazing young ladies, both with different abilities of their own, connect on the ground of their common values. I've known it could be possible. I've wanted it to be. I have believed in it so much that even when it seemed like a gap impossible to bridge, I kept the faith.
What’s the dream you’re believing is possible? What are YOU fighting for? Sign the party invitations. Hand-deliver them, in spite of the fear. And even if you choke through the sentences and wipe a tear or two from your eyes, God is still stubbornly and ridiculously optimistic about His plan for you. He has done it for Addison. And if you had seen what I’ve seen, you’d KNOW that you are more alike that different.