Applying for a passport doesn’t rank too high on the fun scale. When your child defiantly sprawls herself on the floor while an official drawls on about the sluggishness of her computer, you need a stiff vodka. Hey, here’s an idea: Alcohol dispensers at government offices. Okay, that might be irresponsible. How about Xanax?
We took Shaina to renew her passports. Our scorecard? One heart-swelling interaction, one humdrum experience, one big mistake and one disastrous ordeal.
In that order.
Step one of the passport process is taking photos. We took Shaina to the PostNet tucked away in one corner of Sandton City. When Shaina heard she would be going for a photo shoot, she dashed to her room to quickly apply lipstick to her lips and surrounding areas. How many people do you know who make themselves up before that sullen photo session? We cleaned her up and headed off to take her picture.
Shaina hadn’t even walked through the door when the woman behind the counter cheerily welcomed her, “Hello, beautiful girl!”. She treated Shaina like royalty and gifted her with a pack of stickers before posing for Shaina’s Instagram feed. Shaina broke the rule of not smiling for her passport photo- and nobody cared. We left on a high.
Our next step was the U.S. Consulate. Nothing exciting happened. We did our thing, paid the fee and left without any of the staff acknowledging Shaina. Shaina isn’t used to being ignored but was satisfied when the security guards smiled and waved on the way out.
Lastly, we headed to the thrilling Department of Home Affairs for her South African passport. Beforehand, we submitted our documents, booked and paid online.
If you know, you know, and you’re tensing up as you read this.
We told Shaina she was going for another round of photos (Home Affairs captures digital photographs in their offices, something the Americans should consider). “Applying for a passport” would mean nothing to her, hence the “photo shoot” explanation. We arrived three minutes early, only to hear that dreaded South African phrase, “The system is down”. When Naomi explained that Shaina is a child with special needs, the Home Affairs official was sympathetic. She suggested we return in the morning and promised we’d be ushered inside ahead of the queue.
Here’s where we made our big mistake. We told Shaina we’d be going home but didn’t explain why. It never occurred to us to do so. She was not impressed. She whined all the way home and burst into tears when we drove through our gate. When she refused to leave the car, I clicked.
“Shaina, I can see you are upset that we didn’t take your photo. Well, the machine that takes the photos is broken, but we will go back as soon as it’s fixed.” That was all she needed- an explanation. She looked at me, smiled and then danced her way into the house.
Kids with special needs don’t always understand in the same way as their peers. When there’s been an unexpected change of plans, we often forget to contextualise it for them. Shaina couldn’t verbalise her distress at not knowing why we hadn’t followed through on our promise of a photo shoot. We had wrongly assumed she’d accept our decision. This episode was a healthy reminder to always clarify a change of plans.
Well, we went back in the morning. Sadly, the Home Affairs staff seem not to have been taught how to deal with children with special needs. The ramp leading into the building was the token nod towards people with disabilities. That’s where it ended. Only the photo guy bucked the system to speed up his part of the process. Everyone else worked with blank stares, even when Shaina tanked on the floor after an hour’s wait. We skipped no lines and received none of the promised special assistance. Shaina was crabby for the rest of the day.
The South African Constitution outlaws discrimination against or abuse of disabled people. Judaism teaches that a healthy system needs do’s as much as don’ts. Our government has legislated what not to do to those with disabilities. It would be a good idea to educate their employees about what they could do to make life easier for those with challenges. Our country can- and should- do better.