By Mark E. Smith
I recently presented a disability awareness program in front of 50 or so children. They were young, between the ages of five and 10. It was a Boys and Girls Club summer camp, and in between all of the fun activities that kids typically do at summer camp, the director sought to enlighten them with lessons in diversity. In my case, the diversity that is a disability.
As adults, we can presume the dynamic. Able-bodied children unsure what to make of someone like me: my power wheelchair, muscle spasms, slurred speech, all emblematic of a term they’ve never heard, cerebral palsy. We could also speculate that the children may be initially put off, unsure, maybe even fearful upon meeting me. After all, formal psychology teaches that we naturally fear the unknown, those who are different from us. In fact, I once read a fascinating study that asserted that the reason why strangers may speak to an able-bodied companion instead of directly to one with a disability – a situation my wife and I sometimes experience – is because most gravitate instinctively to the known, avoiding the unknown. So, it would be understandable for the children interacting with me for the first time to have all of these very real emotions.
Yet, this presentation went exactly as the many I’ve given over almost three decades. That is, the children were totally comfortable and accepting of me, of my differences, from the first moment. I mean, surely there must have been a few apprehensive kids, as within any group. However, in whole, I’ve seen children respond to the unknowns of my diversity in a way different from some adults: they immediately embrace it, unencumbered by preconceived notions, seeing people as… well… people.
During my presentations, I give the kids the opportunity to ask me anything. Virtually everyone raises a hand. As I call upon children, one-by-one, the questions are so genuine, it’s a life lesson for all of us. See, while I receive the occasional practical question – how do I sleep or shower? – the majority are ones of commonality seen by the children. What’s my favorite color? What’s my favorite flavor of cupcake? Do I like dinosaurs? They’re not dwelling on differences, but focusing on similarities.
It’s long made me think, where did we, as adults, turn the corner away from such genuine acceptance of others who are seemingly different? When and why did many of us lose such an innate trait as seeing only the commonalities in others, not differences? I’m guilty of it. I, too, note differences when I see them in others, and while I strive to be accepting and open-minded, I can fall into that trap of preconceived notions projected unjustly onto others. Yet, when I think back to my childhood, I didn’t have them then, and I remember being perplexed at times as to why some adults had them toward me as a child with a disability?
According to a Harvard study, while our brain is hardwired to recognize differences, seeing differences in others aren’t heavily engrained in us until around age 10. At that point, we become highly impressionable by societal views and this is how our “prejudices” form. The good news is that we are also capable of receiving positive impressions, as well as unlearn negative ones. It’s ultimately up to us whether we retain the open heart of a child.
For me, I’ve come to understand that my disability awareness talks to children aren’t about them at all – they already see people correctly, where diversity isn’t yet a word that they need to know. Rather, the real lesson is for some of us adults in the room: there’s truly no diversity among us, just our common humanity.