It's OK to ask: Children’s book seeks to demystify disabilities
WRENSHALL — The first thing you notice about 13-year-old Cami Martin is her smile.
She also has braces on her legs.
And two plates in her right leg.
And rods in her back.
And hearing aids in both ears.
The Esko School seventh-grader has been afflicted by multiple conditions since infancy, say her parents, Curt and Cary Martin. What’s wrong has never been diagnosed, although it’s most like cerebral palsy.
“For as many tests as she’s gone through since she was an infant, you’re probably talking about as thick as a Bible,” Curt Martin said, holding his thumb and index finger far apart to indicate the width.
To get around, Cami uses a three-wheeled adaptable bicycle, or a walker or — for longer stretches — a wheelchair.
These present no barrier to Cami’s friends, her parents say. Kids in the Wrenshall-Carlton-Esko area know her, accept her and look out for her. Big brother Cody, 16, dotes on her, even going with younger kids on a church youth group trip to be Cami’s helper.
But sometimes, such as in a store, Cami will draw stares from other kids.
“You’ll hear their parents say, ‘Don’t look,’ ” Cary Martin related, imitating a hushed voice.
They get used to that, Cary and Curt Martin said, and Cami doesn’t even seem to notice. But it would be so much better if parents would encourage their children to politely ask their questions.
That’s the message behind a children’s book that has been distributed to public and school libraries across Minnesota.
Called “It’s Okay to Ask!” the book was written by experts at St. Paul-based Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare — where Cami has received much of her care. It was illustrated by Twin Cities artist Nancy Carlson.
“We want children to work with this book, read it with adults,” said Dr. Scott Schwantes, associate medical director for pediatrics at Gillette
Children’s. “We want them to understand that it’s OK to ask another person about their disability.”
The picture book, designed for children ages 3-8, introduces readers to five children, each with a device helping them cope with a disability. One uses a wheelchair, one communicates with a tablet, one has braces on his legs and one has a specialized bicycle. (Cami uses four of the five devices in the book.) Each is approached by another child, who asks a question about the device.
Then the book highlights a quality about the child that has nothing to do with his or her disability. After a girl explains to a boy that she uses her walker to get to places, such as the library, she adds: “I am Gabriela, and I am SMART!”
If Cami Martin were a character in the book, she’d probably say something like: “I am an outdoors girl!”
Although Cami faces some sort of surgery almost every summer, she still finds time to play outside. The Martin family camps a lot, Cary Martin said, and in addition to riding her bicycle, Cami likes to fish and swim and to go hunting with her dad.
There aren’t really any barriers, Cary said. “It just takes a lot longer to do things and to go places.”
The Martins’ property in the country, with a long, flat lane leading to a county road, gives Cami plenty of room to ride her bicycle. Her little brother Chase, 3, likes to follow Cami on his bike.
Giving children the freedom to be themselves is a key goal of Gillette’s treatment, Schwantes said.
“Anytime we look at some sort of adaptive equipment, it’s really to enhance their adaption to (their circumstances),” he said. “It allows us to help you be the best version of yourself possible.”
The “It’s Okay to Ask!” book is one way to “demystify” that adaptive equipment in the eyes of other children, Schwantes said. And other children get that.
“I talked just the other day with a young man who ... uses a wheelchair, and he’s a big hit with the girls,” Schwantes said. “All of the girls want to sit next to him.”
The book is a hit with Chase. “He sat and read it with us, and he goes: Read it again, again,” Cary Martin related. And then, pointing at the walker: “My sister has that.”
Book available online
“It’s Okay to Ask!” can be read online and is also available to purchase. Visit www.gillettechildrens.org and click on the book cover on the home page.