santana and andi

While Santana’s sister’s disability of Angelman Syndrome may be visible, some disabilities are not. Either way, they aren’t something to laugh at.

This week I received a letter to the editor from The Stuttering Foundation of America that said, “Stuttering is the only disability people still laugh at but we’re working to change that.” It got me thinking.

Disabilities aren’t funny. While some are more severe than others, a disability is a disability. By definition, it is a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses or activities. 

I know two wonderful people who stutter and many readers are probably familiar with them as well. One is a special education teacher for Alexander City Schools and a faith columnist for The Outlook, Melinda Blair. She told me it wasn’t until her late 40s she became comfortable in her own skin and accepted the fact she could use her words for good instead of letting her stutter hold her back. She now writes for us bi-weekly and often gives motivational speeches. I think the world of her, as do many others.

Another columnist for us, Jody Fuller, is a speaker and a comedian who has overcome his lifetime stuttering by embracing it. While Jody is king of laughing about any and everything — he’s a comedian who’s funny as all get out after all — it’s still not funny to laugh at somebody for something they can’t help. Jody recently wrote about how humor gets us through things and we should laugh about more and be more lighthearted. I agree but when laughing comes from a place of hate, that’s when it’s wrong. 

My sister, Andi, is 27. She has Angelman Syndrome which is a complex genetic disorder that causes developmental delays and disabilities. Andi can’t walk or talk and has to be on anti-seizure medication. She can’t feed herself or do the basic things you and I can. She has issues balancing, moving and sleeping. She was diagnosed just before her first birthday.

You may read that and feel sad, but even as a very young child I dreaded people feeling sad for my sweet sister. I wish everyone had her heart; she’s a lot better off than us. She’s happy all the time. Always smiling and laughing — like an “angel.” She doesn’t have a worry in the world, and that must be nice. She so looks forward to something as simple as eating a gummy bear, and I think we could all be like Andi and appreciate the little things in life more.

She has cried only once in her life that I know of and no, it wasn’t when she was born. She got her finger closed in the car door once and that’s the only time I remember her crying in all of her 27 years. 

Growing up, I didn’t look at Andi any differently. She was my sister. End of story. It’s still that way now. But everyone else looks at her differently. Some people don’t mean to; it’s just that way.

I’ll tell you something about Andi. You have to be careful wearing earrings around her; she’ll rip them right out of your ears. Anything flashy or fun, she wants. Riding in her stroller or wheelchair through a department store is like heaven on earth for her. You know that urge you feel to touch the soft clothes when you’re walking through the store? Well, Andi feels that urge to the max. She enters the store, giggling endlessly, with arms wide open ready to grab anything in her reach. She stole a thong from a store once — on accident. Yep. I’ll just leave that story there. Bless it. She also took a fridge magnet that says “Julie.” We don’t have a Julie in our little family but it’s been on our fridge for years. 

She likes to pull your hair, too. When we were little and she’d pull my hair, I’d pull hers right back. It didn’t matter to me a bit she was “special,” “handicapped,” “different,” “disabled” or any of those other things that are just words; my sister was playing around and bullying me so I did it back — just like any other siblings do.

Also like any other older siblings do, Andi started teaching me — her baby sister — important life lessons at a very young age. 

Whenever she chewed the hands and feet on my precious Barbies I loved so much, I learned to forgive. 

Because she couldn’t talk back, she was a great listener. She taught me to be one too.

She taught me to be patient. She taught me to laugh — a lot — and to be positive. When you’re around Andi, all you feel is happy. Everybody could use a little bit of that.

She taught me to teach people. Not everybody will understand people like Andi who are different. So it’s my job to tell them.

Most of all, she taught me everyone is different, unique and special, and everyone should be loved unconditionally. She taught me people are people — no matter their color, their language, their gender or sexual orientation, their abilities or anything else. 

Growing up with a sister who is disabled and mentally challenged made me who I am. 

Disabilities such as stuttering are not visible. 

Others, like Andi’s, are.

But no matter what a disability may look like, sound like or entail, it dang sure ain’t funny. 

Santana Wood is managing editor of Tallapoosa Publishers Inc. She can be reached at santana.wood@alexcityoutlook.com