My friend and mentor “John”, was heading into a conference room to do a presentation for a group he had never spoken with in his long career. And he confided in me by saying he was a little nervous. “FYI diversity used to scare me.” I quickly replied, “Diversity use to scare ‘you’? Imagine how us diverse people use to feel.” He said, “How did you feel?” I said, “When you walk into a room and you are the only one like you and you aren’t accepted then you feel rejected. It is like looking for a table for a lunch in high school and knowing you don’t have anywhere to sit.”
My reply made him question his beliefs. He is an older white male of no real noticeable physical traits and I am a younger Hispanic man born with a disability. Just in the way I doubt I can imagine what it was like growing up in the era of segregation, he can’t imagine growing up looking totally different from everyone else. From the outside we couldn’t be any more different and some people wouldn’t think we would be sitting at the same table let alone talking on a regular basis. What we have in common is our shared values. We share the idea that we don’t attack what we don’t understand, instead we ask questions, and we form an understanding. And even if we might not like what we are seeing in others we don’t judge them for being that way, instead we challenge ourselves to understand why we don’t agree with them.
When “John” was growing up he was taught you don’t look at disabled people and you don’t ask them questions. In his mind it was a safe way to keep from making the people feel they were being stared at or felt like their privacy was being invaded. I’m sure others believed that the person that was disabled suffered a trauma and that the last thing they would want to do is talk about it. But this only further alienates the disabled person. This idea that cutting people off was meant to protect the disabled is crazy. I’m sure in the past that the ignorant thought people that looked different should be made fun of or put into a traveling carnival. They wanted to maintain a separation from people that didn’t look like them out of fear and confusion in the mind. Becasue they were not exposed to different people they couldn’t build a relationship with them so rather than accept they pushed them away. So disablied people were locked in homes and others were sent to hospitals to live out their lives. Many were even killed before or after birth to save the familes the trouble of raising them. This wasn’t the dark ages, we are takling about the 1900s.
We don’t treat disable with such serverity any more and in some case diabilities have become trivialized. Many abuse the right for a parking space or use the large stall meant for wheelchairs because they want more leg room.
In reality, ignoring the problem or the people with the problem did something far worse than point out the difference. It shut the disabled people out of the conversation entirely and leaves them feeling like they are not worthy of you looking them in the face. People rationalized their behavior by saying, “Polite people don’t talk about things like that.” This became an excuse for the idea that no one wanted to think about disabled people because it was too frightening.
Well as I pointed out to my friend, imagine how scary it was for us?
Living with a disability is hard enough but when people act like you don’t exist because they can’t deal with it makes it that much harder. I challenge people the next time they see a person in a wheelchair or with a cane or even a minor limp to ask their name and if they need any help and tell them how glad you were to have the chance to do something for them. The disabled person will be very happy to recieve and you wil feel good about helping people that are different.
Eventually you will come to see diversity isn’t that scary. It is an opportunity to learn something new about another peron that you wouldn’t have if you stay in the safe zone of like-minded and same looking people. And you will discover that not only are disabled people not that different, many of them are very powerful and full of heart and will have plenty to share with you.