Schwager: Embrace diversity in all its forms

Clare Schwager

In today’s society, we are taught to accept people no matter where they’re from or what they look like. We are educated about the importance of multiculturalism and religious tolerance and defeating racism.

While not everyone takes these values to heart, the majority of the population believe diversity is a valuable and wonderful thing. America has made progress in this area, but it still has a long way to go as a nation.

I recently read an article about a study on the happiness of people with “locked-in syndrome,” a condition in which the patient cannot speak or move, and can communicate only through blinking. The study found that about three-fourths of those surveyed were happy, despite popular belief that such people have nothing left to live for.

This study made me question my own preconceived notions on diversity. I must admit I’d never really thought of disabilities as “diverse.” I assumed diversity had more to do with gender, race, culture or religion.

However, the longer I thought about it, the more I realized our country needs to recognize mental and physical disabilities as differences that enrich our society.

Elementary students are taught that being different is good. Teachers do their best to instill a sense of tolerance and acceptance in their young charges, but there is only so much a teacher can do.

My 8 and 11-year-old sisters have told me about classmates that are taunted for being different. These children are teased not because they have an accent or because of their religion; students seem to be fairly accepting of these things.

Some of the stories my sisters related had me wishing I could march into their classrooms and practice my judo on the bullies. But then I realized these kids probably don’t even consider themselves bullies.

Can we blame society for not educating them enough? Should we blame the parents or the government for not providing programs that address these issues?

This mindset, that disabled people are somehow “less human” than others, or don’t feel the way “normal” people do, carries on into adulthood.

The root of the problem is not prejudice; as with most issues, the problem is ignorance. People simply do not know how to act around those with disabilities, or they do not realize that these individuals have the same capacity to feel happiness, sorrow, fear, pain and love as any other person.

Despite those one or two bullies from the classroom, children in general are the most accepting of differences in their peers. Adults, on the other hand, tend to be uncomfortable with what they don’t understand. It’s often been said that adults have a lot to learn from children, and I believe it wholeheartedly. But this lack of understanding is still inexcusable.

Adults have a responsibility to lead by example; no matter how open and accepting children might be at first, they will grow up. The responsibility lies not with teachers or the government or disabled persons; parents need to raise their children with a sense of morality and a respect for life. That’s as simple as it gets. It all comes down to the parents.

My own experience with mentally disabled individuals is limited. I’m certainly no expert. But I was raised in a family that values life in all its forms and variations, through all its stages.

One of my sister’s best friends is a young man with down syndrome. He is, hands down, the happiest person I have ever met and contributes more to his community than most people I know. This young man makes and sells greeting cards to raise money; every cent of which he gives to the Loaves and Fishes food pantry. I think we all can learn a lesson from young men and women like him.

Before I was born, doctors ran some AFP tests and informed my parents that it was likely I would have hydrocephalus or down syndrome. The results came back positive multiple times, but my mother didn’t bat an eyelash. As a nurse she’d taken care of children and adults with many different types of disabilities, and she knew that these people are often the sweetest, the happiest, and the ones who bring the most joy to life.

My parents raised my brother and sisters and me with this in mind, and I try to remember these values when I’m faced with diversity. Disabled persons, whether physically or mentally challenged, might look or seem different than you and I, but they aren’t all that different when it comes down to it. They feel just like we do: they love, hope, fear and cry like we do.

As the next generation of parents, it’s important we recognize mental and physical disabilities for what they are: merely one aspect of someone with many other skills and insights to offer society.