The United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Cincinnati brought to my attention an essay contest they held for children. The purpose? To encourage expression of the students’ own or observed feelings toward those who have disabilities, and the impact of those thoughts, with the goal that insight will foster togetherness.
Wow did that bring back memories. For eight years, my favorite annual project was helping to produce the Inclusion Leadership Awards Event – an event aimed at encouraging people to think outside the box, break down communication barriers, notice AND appreciate skills that had been under the radar. Our main communication goal was to inspire a world where people with and without disabilities work and play together not because they have to, but because they want to.
I was charged with developing those messages through the speaker, the script, the acceptance speeches and the videos so that guests would leave with a real sense of vision. In 2 ½ hours, attendees were to learn a lesson that would somehow change the world as they knew it. They heard stories of organizations that instinctively knew how to uncover talent, and of people whose abilities were no longer obscurities. Acceptance, we wanted them to realize, was not an abstract. Inclusion was not so much about ‘them’ but rather it was about ‘me’.
About ME. That’s a concept. Norman Kunc, our 2001 keynote speaker, had this to share. “In our society, we have already figured out that achievement and mastery lead to self-esteem. Where we have gone wrong is that we have forgotten that self-esteem can only come out of a context of belonging…we have idolized this ideal of independence and self-sufficiency. And what we have forgotten is that human beings need to belong…in the words of the music of Cheers, ‘where everyone knows our name and everyone’s glad we came.’ “
Actor Danny Woodburn, who normally makes a living provoking laughter, briefly left Hollywood in 2004 to remind our guests of a message from Mother Theresa, “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible tragedy,” he said.
Danny told us his story – the story of an actor, comedian and activist whose talents were born in the hardships of a world unaccepting of a medical condition. All too well, he pointed out; he knows the sting of rejection and ridicule because he has lived it his entire life. He still gets scripts that refer to him as a ‘midget.’
But, he said, he is lucky. Through his work he has had the ability to influence attitudes. Offensive words, he’s found, are generally rooted in misunderstanding and he unabashedly corrects producers, directors and other actors. Of his character on the NBC hit Seinfeld, he said, “All it took for the success of my character was an intelligent exchange of ideas and sensitivity to the issues of little people. As a result, both Jerry (Seinfeld) and I felt included.”
Danny’s candor has bridged cultural and generational gaps, and altered misguided perceptions. (Please stay with me, I’m getting to the connection with the essay contest.) He continued to tell us about his job after college teaching drama to 20 kids between eight and ten years old.
That first day he devoted to talking about himself. Most of the questions were pretty typical. “How old are you? How tall are you? Why are you that way?,” they asked.
Then it came. The comment that would open the door behind which acceptance stood poised and waiting. An indignant girl told Danny in front of the class what her father thought of him.
“To my daddy, you are just a midget,” she said.
Danny looked at her and politely replied, “Well your daddy is wrong. Nobody is just anything and that word to me is like a hate word. And we know hate words can affect people, how they can hurt people and how it is wrong to use them.”
After that day, Danny told us, his students wanted to have their acting class – with Mr. Dan.
“I think back and I think all it took was that one day of communication, including them in who I am and nothing else needed to be said,” he went on.
Wow. That’s powerful stuff, and yet, it really is that simple.
And that is why I was so interested in the United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Cincinnati’s project aimed at opening minds and dialogue, and encouraging young people to think about the impact of their words and thoughts and actions.
“Changing the attitude of one school aged child has the ability to influence an entire generation.” said Susan S. Schiller, executive director.
UCP presented Nicole Roberts, a student from St. Mary’s School, with a family pass to Kings Island for her essay entitled ‘Inspiring Swimmers with Amazing Attitudes.’ Below is an excerpt.
For the most part, I am a typical teenage girl. Nothing scares me. I’m not afraid of the dark, I laugh at horror movies and I absolutely love to ride roller coasters, the higher the better. However, when my mom suggested I volunteer to help the Special Olympics Swim Team, I was a little nervous. It wasn’t that I was scared of people with disabilities; instead I was scared of how I would act around people with disabilities. What would I say? How would I interact with them? Would I stare?
Before I became acquainted with disabled people, I felt sorry for them. I was sad for them because they have to live with hardships that limit them for the rest of their lives. I thought they were completely different than I. Wow, was I wrong! Now I see that people with disabilities are just like everyone else. They love to watch the same television shows, they go to school, they go to the movies, and even have sleepovers with their friends. They have hopes and dreams for the future, just like we all do.
My work with these amazing people has taught me so much. However, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that people with disabilities have abilities too. It’s not about what they can’t do, but should be about what they can do, what they give to society and how they inspire others. I think of my fearless swimmers when I hear these words from Thomas Jefferson, ‘Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.’ They’ve showed me that attitude is the key as to whether you will succeed or fail. My new friends definitely have the right attitude!
Just as in Danny’s classroom, all it took for the word ‘disability’ to become transparent in Nicole’s eyes was for her to get to know others who do things differently.
Who have you gotten to know lately?
I feel truly blessed to be able to say I have gotten to know Danny, not just as an actor, speaker, comedian, and humanitarian, but as a friend. Such depth of human character is a true gift.