In life, we learn so much from our experiences. They shape and teach us, how to see our world and those who share it with us. When we get to know one other, we break down stereotypes, open communication, bridge understanding and come to appreciate the unique gift each person offers.
I was 11 years old when I went through my first interviewing process. I was applying to be one of four students selected to represent Cincinnati, and the United States, in an international friendship program known as Children’s International Summer Village. Founded right here in Cincinnati in 1951, CISV chapters across the globe host summer camp-like villages where delegations of 11 year -olds from diverse countries learn about peace by gaining understanding and building friendships. Impressionable minds come to see beyond differences to realize how alike they are as human beings.
I was a finalist that year which meant that, while I didn’t attend a Village, I and my family began the process of welcoming to our home Irene, a girl from another country, Sweden. While she was here, she and I attended a day camp similar to the village only we went home every night, where we spent our days among dozens of other young people, many of whom spoke limited to no English. And the following year, at 12 years of age, I boarded a plane with other Cincinnati children to spend five weeks in Sweden with Irene’s family.
I will never forget those early experiences and the influence they have had on my life. It is an incredible gift to come to know someone different from yourself. You grow as a person. You grow in your perspective. You appreciate differences. You thirst for learning and you become more welcoming to those whose cultures, religions, backgrounds, and ways of life are not like your own.
Since then, I continued my journey. In high school, I became involved with AFS, an interchange program. Camilla, who I still consider my Swedish sister, lived with us for a year. I was president of the Wyoming High School chapter my senior year. As an adult, I volunteered as a driver for the Tennis Masters Tournament in Mason for about 17 years getting to meet people from around the globe, even opening my home to a young tennis player from Brazil one year. I served on the board of the CISV Cincinnati Chapter for several years, and my brother and his wife adopted my niece, Kalianni, from India. Through my career and personal life, I am involved with causes that bring people together through and celebrate difference.
The lessons that you learn from getting to know and appreciate people who do and say and experience life unlike yourself truly are transformational. Stereotypes are dispelled as you come to know people as individuals, human beings who have their own unique qualities and share a common need for being seen and welcomed. Communication barriers are broken down, replaced with open conversation. Workplaces and communities are strengthened by diverse people participating together. World peace is given new perspective as places on a map and cultures that are foreign to us, represent individuals, relationships, and feelings.
You need not have to wait until adulthood to enter this classroom. Teaching young children to value and include others who are different from themselves is an incredibly important lesson. There are so many opportunities through school and the community to get to know others with different beliefs, ways of getting around, learning styles, backgrounds, ages, and cultures. As adult role models, we have a great responsibility to be setting an example, to be encouraging those experiences, to be helping children navigate the journey and grow into caring, welcoming adults.
And, as adults, we too can learn and grow so much from each other. When we include people who are different from ourselves, we are all better for it.
Twenty five years ago, July 26, the historic Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law. It was the first federal legislation that broke down the barriers, at least from a physical standpoint, that had served to exclude people because they did things differently from the norm. The law brought to the forefront a consciousness of creating spaces where everyone can access. Wider doorways and wheelchair ramps are some of the mandated changes seen in buildings and curb cuts throughout the country.
The law was a magnificent first step toward change. According to the ADA, no individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal participation of goods, services, facilities, privileges, and accommodations.
The thing that I want to remind everyone is that, while laws and these physical changes are important, true inclusion begins and ends with each one of us. Disabilities affect people of all race, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, and age. Disabilities may be visible or they may be invisible. And disabilities may impact any one of us in any given moment of our lives.
But disabilities do not define people.
Still, people who experience disability are among the most socially and physically isolated. They are more vulnerable as targets of bullying. They are often misunderstood, and their intelligence and feelings very much underestimated.
I have always been someone fully aware of the importance of including and valuing others; however, my work with disability related organizations has heightened my awareness of this impact on individuals and on communities.
I have heard about stories and know people personally who have felt the pain of being excluded, and of not being given the opportunity to realize their full potential. Students who have been admonished by their peers. Parents who have feared adopting from the United States because of policies that could take their child away, for no other reason than their mother and father do things differently. People of working age who want to contribute and are very capable of contributing (not to mention have valuable skills) but are working in a job not up to their abilities because of limitations put on them by others.
But I have also seen the beauty in watching how kids…and adults grow…when they lose sight of each other’s differences and see each other as human beings. All of us, no matter our religion, culture, ethnicity, color or mode of doing, communicating and experiencing things grow when we include each other. We learn to see situations from new perspectives, we appreciate the gifts of our diversity, and together we are capable of accomplishing great things.
In a wonderfully spoken guest editorial to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Kat Lyons, advocacy coordinator for The Center for Independent Living Options Inc., shared, “We (people with disabilities) see ourselves as fully human, with strengths and weaknesses like any human. We know that any human may, in an instant, join our ranks.
We are not unable, just because we are disabled. We are just people, and we’d like to get to know you. We’d like for you to know and include us.”
Instead of simply applauding the ADA on its merits, let us see the ADA as a stepping stone toward a world of togetherness for all of us, a world that is better because we are a part of it.
Before a vast crowd of more than 250,000 people diverse by race, age, culture and age, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke with bold conviction and heart. He spoke with hope and courage.
His dreams and hopes resonated with hundreds of millions across the globe, and still do. They touch me to my inner core. When I think about my friends, neighbors, co-workers, and colleagues and how much we all have to offer each other, I am reminded that our diversity brings out each other’s strengths in meaningful ways. And yet, at our core, is the most basic foundation in all of us share and that is the need for belonging and love.
For prosperity to occur – and I am not talking of only monetary riches – we must work to look beyond the surface of others in search of their hidden gifts. We must practice forgiveness and forgo hatred. We must embrace differences while also realizing similarities. We must not only dream but pursue goals.
This is the most beautiful video. I had to share it. What a wonderful lesson about appreciating and valuing each others’ unique talents. Think about all that we can accomplish and all that we can be if we stop judging people and animals by what they are not or what we want them to be, and instead help them to discover all they are capable of being and contributing. The world is a better place because of each others’ diversity and gifts.