(First published on the Additional Needs Blogfather blog)
"Children with additional needs are best supported and helped not by trying to get them to ‘fit in’, or by trying to change them into someone that they are not and can never be, but by helping everyone to accept them for who they are, including and involving them in ways that work for each child, and delighting in the diversity, difference and variety that this brings to life for everyone."
By now there is a good chance that you will already have seen the John Lewis/Waitrose Christmas 2019 advert, featuring the adorable Edgar the dragon who struggles to fit in, as well as his friend Ava. I don’t know about you, but as I watched it for the first time, through the tears, it reminded me a lot about children with additional needs who, like Edgar, just want to be accepted and included for who they are.
Edgar tries to fit in, tries to do the things that the other children do like building a snowman, ice skating, or watching the unveiling of the town’s Christmas decorations, but every time it goes wrong and he finds himself being the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons. Edgar can’t help it, he was born a dragon, dragons breathe fire, the world isn’t set up for fire breathing dragons who might flare up at any time.
Children with additional needs are not to blame for their disability, difference, or diversity either. They were either born that way, or have acquired their condition through illness, accident, or a myriad of other reasons. They do, however, like Edgar, live in a world that doesn’t understand them, doesn’t appreciate and value them, that isn’t set up for them; a world where it is hard for them to fit in.
In the advert Edgar has a friend, Ava, who looks out for him and tries to help him. At first, she tries to stop him from getting into trouble by tying a scarf around his snout to stop him breathing fire. It doesn’t work, how could it? Edgar is a dragon and trying to stop him being a dragon is impossible, just as it is impossible to stop a child with additional needs being who they are.
Eventually, Ava realises that the best way to support her friend Edgar the dragon is not to try and change him, but to help him to find a way to be involved and included that he can do for himself, as a dragon, while helping the townsfolk to accept and welcome him for who he is. There is a tense moment when everyone wonders what is going to happen, but then Edgar does his thing, everyone is delighted, and Edgar is the centre of attention for all of the right reasons this time.
Children with additional needs are best supported and helped not by trying to get them to ‘fit in’, or by trying to change them into someone that they are not and can never be, but by helping everyone to accept them for who they are, including and involving them in ways that work for each child, and delighting in the diversity, difference and variety that this brings to life for everyone.
The town in the advert would be poorer without Edgar, or if they tried to make Edgar someone that he is not. The town would be poorer without Ava too, someone to stand up for, support, and encourage her different friend. The same goes for us too; I long for a world where everyone is accepted for who they are, for what they can contribute, for the diversity that this brings to life for us all. I long for a world where there are more ‘Ava’s’ too, people who aren’t put off by disability, difference or diversity and who offer friendship, kindness and love to all, receiving it in return.
This year’s John Lewis/Waitrose Christmas advert will, I’m sure, touch the hearts of many for a myriad of reasons, but if it also shows the world that acceptance, welcome and belonging should be experienced by everyone, not just at Christmas but throughout the year, then I for one will be grateful.
Mark Arnold, Additional Needs Ministry Director
Image rights © John Lewis & Partners
Mark writes regularly on his blog (from which this fantastic article was reproduced) and he regularly trains youth and children's leaders and volunteers on the subject of additional needs inclusion. Mark also offers consultancy to churches, organisations and groups as well as co-hosts the Additional Needs Alliance Facebook community.