I've been traveling the last four weeks. I've been fortunate enough to spend time in both Australia and New Zealand. Visiting distant places provides an opportunity to reflect on the things I take for granted. It also offers an opportunity to recognize our differences and our similarities in how we live on this planet.
The lessons received were more than about learning to drive on the left side of the road (and shift gears with my left hand), or choosing between a 'tall black' or a 'flat white' coffee in the mornings, or even about how to pronounce my name - 'Teeeed' rather than Ted.
My reason for traveling was to participate in two disability conferences. My intention was to share a message that that I have come to appreciate that everyone, including and especially individuals with a disability, have something valuable to offer. Through presentations as 'The Hidden Gifts of Disability' and 'How Disability Saved the World' my goal was to deepen the awareness of the contributions those with differing abilities can, and do make.
I shared the story of when my son attended grade seven at a local school and was intentionally selected by his teacher to be a member of his class because Jeff recognized that other children were kinder and gentler when around Josh. Jeff's thinking was that having Josh in his class would make it a kinder and gentler place for all children to learn. As I shared my story others came forward to share the gifts they had received from having a child with disabilities.
One talked of how her non-disabled child became a strong social justice advocate as a result of witnessing how others treated his sibling. Another parent began her story with the words, "My teacher is twelve years old." This parent explained that her daughter of twelve has been a profound source of wisdom in her life. Another mother began by telling us that she has two "special" children, rather than two children with "special needs". A colleague disclosed that her attraction to working in the disability field is because she feels she is unconditionally accepted by those she supports.
What I discovered in my travels is that in spite of the distance and differences there is a common desire amongst all human beings to belong, to be included, to be valued, and to contribute. What the disability community offers is an opportunity to recognize our similarities even though we may appear outwardly as different.
What I also noticed is a pattern that concerned me. I notice that many people look to others to be the agents of inclusion, of acceptance, of belonging, and of change rather than recognizing we all have the ability and the responsibility to include, accept, invite, and change our communities if needed.
The fact is our communities are a shared creation by those of us who live in them. Our way of living is the result of our collective thoughts and actions. Rather than perceive another as the leader or agent of change, it is imperative that we recognize that each of us has the capacity as well as the responsibility for deciding how we share the spaces and resources of this planet.
One of the more powerful experiences of my journey was the in-flight movie. The film was the documentary "This Is It" which captures the rehearsals for the concert Michael Jackson was producing prior to his passing. In the documentary Jackson speaks directly to the camera and says - "This Is It. If we want change, it's up to us."
A song of Jackson's that impacted me deeply was 'Man in the Mirror'. These lyrics says it all:
"I'm gonna make a change for once in my life.
Gonna make a difference.
Gonna make it right.
I'm starting with the man in the mirror.
I'm asking him to change his ways.
And no message could have been any clearer.
If you wanna make the world a better place,
Take a look at yourself and then make a change."
I witness a profound transformation occurring. Great numbers of individuals are recognizing the need to foster belonging, inclusion, respect, and dignity regardless of differences in ability, culture, religion, or status. And while the families in the disability community might be more sensitive to the issues of belonging and inclusion, we all benefit when humanity learns to accept and value everyone unconditionally.
It is possible that the efforts of the disability community to promote belonging and inclusion will save the world for all of us.