Injustice stems from fear; fear begins with ignorance. Once, I was ignorant. I used to be a “normal” person who, in the midst of my normalcy, was afraid of people with disabilities. I was afraid because I didn’t know how to interact with them, I didn’t know if I should pity them, if I should ignore their disability, if I should talk more loudly, use more hand gestures or speak more simply. I didn’t know because, honestly, how could I? In my high school, the students with disabilities were placed into a classroom where we could volunteer to go visit them as teacher’s aides for community service hours. They were the others and we were the privileged ones who could offer our valuable time and presence to improve their lives. I didn’t like this at all. I would think about volunteering but then I would tell myself “that’s just not my thing, I wouldn’t be good at it.” But now, I understand that to be human is to be good at interacting with a person with a disability. They do not require special skills from their friends because they are every bit as human as we are, they have just as many talents and, if given the opportunity, they can contribute to the world just as much as any other person.
As an adult, I can look back on my years in high school and understand why I thought the things that I thought. I saw the world in a particular way until someone intervened and showed me an alternative to society’s perspective. During my freshman year of college, a good friend of mine persuaded me to join an organization that promotes the social inclusion of people with disabilities through friendship. I was paired up with Michelle, a woman with an intellectual disability who lives in a residential home. Michelle and the friends that she lived with changed my life. We would read Harry Potter together, watch movies, talk about boys over dinner and have phone conversations about the Brady Bunch. Sounds like a typical friendship, right? But there was something extraordinary about the way she treated me, about the way the residents would greet me at the door with excitement in their eyes and love in their arms. No single group of people have affected me more than my friends with disabilities. And because of them, my heart was set on fire. I wanted nothing more than to create a world where people would recognize one another for their abilities, rather than their disabilities. When I was younger, I was fed a lie about people with disabilities but no one person had lied to me; each one of us experiences a collective lie that was formed long ago, by people who did not understand what it meant to be different.
I am determined to build truth that will grip the youth of this country and shape them into advocates of social justice. A few years ago, a good friend of mine introduced me to the idea of promoting social inclusion for people with disabilities through an educational platform. We would conduct a two week program in private elementary schools, most of which have small or non-existent populations of students with disabilities, to expose general education students to the concept of what it means to have a disability. We would do this through a comprehensive, integrative curriculum that takes standard lesson plans and transforms them to include information about disabilities, such as using statistics about people with disabilities to teach fractions. The curriculum also includes short stories that feature characters with disabilities, science lessons based on the technical aspects of disabilities and history lessons about influential individuals who had disabilities. At the end of the program, we bring in adults with disabilities such as Down Syndrome and autism to lead the class in an art project that focuses on diversity. Our program, called ONE COMMUNITY, also includes a philanthropy component that teaches students to give out of their passion and commitment to a cause, rather than for extrinsic rewards.
I had the privilege of watching our program change the way children in a Chicago pri-vate school perceived disabilities. They responded positively, they asked intelligent questions and began to build their own opinions about how people with disabilities should be treated. During the art project, students interacted with a person with disabilities for the first time and they had the opportunity to see them in leadership positions. These 3rd-5th graders sat with adults with autism and Down Syndrome and carried on conversations, a task that many grown ups are too afraid to attempt. Now, I want to see ONE COMMUNITY reach schools around the country. I don’t want another individual to grow up like I did, with fear and ignorance. I want to create and deliver an alternate experience for young students so that they can grow up to be advocates who will work together to create one inclusive community.
For more information on our organization or if you would like to see us at your school, please visit http://www.onecommunityonline.org.Amanda Gain Assistant Director, ONE COMMUNITY email@example.com