Fair Doesn’t Have to Mean Equal

This post was originally posted on the Autism Society of North Carolina (ASNC)’s blog. Thanks to Bobbi Wells for allowing us to share her writing! We often discuss techniques for explaining accommodations to kids who think things may be “unfair.” This piece explains so much!

In a world where it seems to be politically correct to treat everyone the same and give everyone the same privileges, we often miss the opportunity to teach our kids (typical and not typical) a very important lesson: Life isn’t fair. And more importantly, fair doesn’t mean equal!

I believe it is far better to teach kids this lesson early on than to discover down the road that you have raised a self-centered child who believes he/she is entitled, or to have your child go through life thoroughly disappointed and angry because life isn’t fair! As a parent of a child with autism in elementary school, I find myself repeating the mantra “fair doesn’t mean equal” far too often.

It reminds me of a time when my son was in second grade and I was called in for a conference because he would not stop whistling during class. He had recently acquired this skill and was putting it to good use, to his teacher’s dismay. I suggested the teacher give him a lollipop, or a piece of gum, or even a Life Saver, to which she replied, “But that wouldn’t be FAIR to the other kids!”

As my hair stood up on end and I felt my head spin around and my eyes bulge out, I politely said in my kindest voice, “Well, it just doesn’t seem ‘fair’ that my son was born with autism either, does it? What better way to welcome these kids to the real world, where life isn’t fair! So tell me, in all fairness, would it be so bad to offer the other kids a small treat, too? They, too, might just benefit from some sensory therapy and oral stimuli!”

Well, she reluctantly agreed to go with the “discreet” Life Saver and what do you know, like magic … no more whistling!

John Thomas, a former training consultant for ASNC, told a brilliant story at the 2013 annual conference, illustrating “fair doesn’t mean equal”: A teacher took three children out of the classroom and told them to return one by one. The first child was told to come in with an imaginary cut on his finger. The second child was told to come in with an imaginary stomachache, and the third child was told to come in complaining about an imaginary headache. When the first child entered, the teacher offered him ointment and a bandage for his imaginary cut. Next, the second child came in complaining of an imaginary stomachache, and the teacher gave the child the same thing, some ointment and a bandage, and told him to go sit down. The bewildered child took the items and went back to his seat. Finally, the third child entered complaining of an imaginary headache, and the teacher again gave the child some ointment and a bandage and told him to go to his seat.

Then the teacher asked the class, “So what’s wrong with this picture?” The class replied, “You gave ointment and a bandage to the children with a stomachache and a headache. That doesn’t make sense!”

“Well, I wanted to be fair,’” said the teacher, “and so I gave each of them the same thing. Isn’t that fair? What do you think I should have done?” The class replied, “Give the one with a stomachache some Pepto-Bismol and the one with a headache some aspirin, not a bandage!”

“Exactly,” replied the teacher. “I should have given each student exactly what they needed. They each had a problem, but the same solution didn’t work for each of them, did it? I was trying to be FAIR, but I didn’t help the ones who needed something more appropriate and specific for their problem, did I?”

“Therefore, class, fair doesn’t always mean equal, does it?”

Not only are those with autism and other disabilities different, but we are all different, and we all have different needs.

Just as someone needs caffeine to get them going in the morning, someone else might need to flap their hands to stay focused. Just as someone needs glasses to read, someone else might need to wiggle on an inflated cushy seat to read. Just as someone needs to doodle or daydream during a long lecture, someone else might need to stand and pace back and forth or take a quick break to get back on track.

Why not recognize and provide for those different needs as no big deal? If you think it’s no big deal, no one else will, either! If you don’t focus on it, no one else will, either! When we try to be fair, we miss the wonderful opportunity to teach our kids to celebrate their differences and to build acceptance of one another’s needs and differences!

–Written by Bobbi Wells, an Autism Resource Specialist and mother of a son with autism

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.

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