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My Special Family

C.B. Lieber

In some ways, growing up with a brother or sister who is mentally or physically handicapped is “totally normal” for the other kids in the family. In other ways, it’s anything but. People who grew up with a special sibling open up about their childhoods.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Even though she had a brother who was severely handicapped, Hindy, who grew up in the ’60s, recalls that her childhood felt “very normal.” “My mother’s life must have been crazy because we were four children, one with special needs, born within six years, but I have very few memories of anything unusual,” Hindy says. “My mother used to hire a mother’s helper because she couldn’t leave the house without another adult. In those days before double strollers, she had two Silver Cross carriages, and the only way she could go out for a walk was with the baby and Chaim [the second oldest] in the carriages, and my sister and me sitting on top.” At that time, there were no schools or respite programs for children with special needs. 

“My parents’ entire lives revolved around taking care of my brother,” states Hindy matter-of-factly. At the same time, however, Chaim was embraced just like any other child in the family. Hindy, like many siblings of special needs children, doesn’t view herself as unusual in any way. Yet the events that shaped her childhood, and later her adulthood, have afforded her a unique perspective on life — an appreciation for when all goes right, as well as a love and acceptance for handicapped or limited individuals. 

This unique perspective is one shared by many siblings of special children, who have likely been raised in an environment that is at once demanding and enriching. For many siblings of special children, what others view as disturbing or disconcerting doesn’t even raise a blip on the radar screen. 

“Everyone was treated the same,” says Rivka, who has a younger brother with spina bifida, resulting in his inability to walk. 

“I don’t think my brother got more attention, or at least not in a way that we felt it. We were raised to view his situation in a very positive way, instead of being upset or questioning it. “Most places today are wheelchair accessible — and were, even back then — and if we went somewhere that wasn’t, my mother would stay behind with Benny and we’d go out with my father. Sometimes one of us might have felt bad, asking, ‘How come Benny can’t do it?’ But we didn’t feel resentful.” 

With the right attitude, children can view almost anything in a positive light. When Shulamis Tropper’s sister Tova, who has Down syndrome, was a baby, her therapy appointments and efforts to stimulate her development were a central feature in the family, but Shulamis recalls them as a novelty rather than an imposition. “We were very proud to be Tova’s siblings. I went to Kesher [a camp for girls with special needs] with her for two summers. It was never something we were embarrassed about. It wasn’t always so rosy, but I definitely wore a badge of honor.”

The parents of these children are largely responsible for the tone set in the house, notes Dassi Shtern, director of SEGULA, a Cleveland program that provides educational opportunities for children with special needs. In her experience, parents of special children who are blessed with emunah and emotional strength will train their other children to view their situation in a very natural way, to the point where she once heard a young man say, “I’m part of a special family.” 

In many homes, the presence of a sibling with special needs brings out the best in the other family members.

 “We felt very loving and protective toward Brachi, definitely not ashamed,” says Meira, whose oldest sister has cerebral palsy and is nonverbal, handicapped, and requires a feeding tube. Despite these multiple challenges, Brachi is very much a part of Meira’s nuclear family, so much so that when people ask her how she was affected by Brachi’s presence, she doesn’t even know. “It never occurred to us to be ashamed of her — Brachi was just a part of our family.”

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