People with disabilities have a tendency to feel vulnerable and excluded, especially in an environment where their needs aren’t catered properly and where people have a limited understanding of their condition.
Firefighter Mike Rheault was completely aware of this, which is why when he encountered a non-verbal child one night when he was on duty, he knew exactly what to do.
It was one January night when Lt. Rheault and his crew from the Manchester Fire Department went to an apartment building to investigate the fire alarms that were going off on three floors of the structure.
Curious youngster Tegan McCall stood in the doorway of his apartment, watching as the firefighters roamed the halls in their big, bulky uniforms.
Tegan has cerebral palsy and is non-verbal. But this didn’t stop Lt. Rheault from taking notice of the kid.
He saw the boy standing quietly in the doorway while watching the firefighters at work. The fireman noticed that the boy “looked at me like he wanted to say something, but wasn’t being verbal.” Then, Lt. Rheault did something that Tegan did not expect.
Lt. Rheault began effortlessly communicating with Tegan through American Sign Language!
As it turns out, Lt. Rheault grew up in a household with two parents who were deaf, so his first language was ASL. That’s why he immediately noticed that Tegan was reading his lips while the boy was watching them at work.
“I said, ‘Hey, how are you?’ And he kind of smiled at me,” Lt. Rheault said. “And I said, ‘My name is Mike. What’s your name?’ And he said, ‘My name is Tegan,’ and I said, ‘Oh, it’s nice to meet you.’”
Before ending their conversation, Lt. Rheault made sure to teach Tegan one more word in sign language: fireman. He showed the boy how it’s done, which involves tapping the back of your hand on your forehead. The boy’s face just lit up!
Lt. Rheault moved along and gave Tegan a high-five to which the boy responded enthusiastically. The boy just kept saluting him while he was going upstairs, which brought a big smile to the firefighter’s face. Clearly, both were very happy to have met each other.
Tegan’s mother, Amy, witnessed the interaction between the fireman and her son and captured the touching scene on video. She says that Tegan was overjoyed by the brief conversation he had with the firefighter.
“It made me cry after I came back inside,” Amy said. “Tegan is just thrilled.”
Amy was so moved that she shared the video on Twitter, thanking the Manchester Fire Department and Lt. Rheault in particular.
The lieutenant also gave Tegan a fire chief hat before he left, which the boy has been happily wearing ever since his sweet encounter with the fireman. The video has now gone viral, and Amy hopes that it inspires other people to reach out to kids who are different or non-verbal.
“Talk to them, talk to all the kids. If you see a kid at the playground whose different, or in a wheelchair or doesn’t speak, or has special accommodations… they just want to be your friend,” Amy urged.
What a wonderful gesture by Lt. Rheault! People with disabilities want nothing but acceptance and respect, and that is exactly what Lt. Rheault showed Tegan. For most of us, what happened between them was nothing special and just an ordinary conversation.
But for a child with a disability, interactions as simple as that could mean a lot to them. Amy is right about what she said about reaching out, and we hope that when we see a person with a disability next time, we will remember Lt. Rheault’s beautiful example.
Watch the clip below to see the firefighter speaking to Tegan in sign language.
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