The Kids Already Have it Right

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.

Escaping Black Holes

By Mark E. Smith

With the death of Stephen Hawking, I’m again reminded of how cultures like the UK and the US hold on to a sense of “diversity” that isn’t valid, to the detriment of all. Are we ever going to admit that so-called diversity is the norm, and therefore doesn’t exist, realizing that emphasizing it can diminish who we are as individuals?

Upon Hawking’s death, the BBC published “Five Facts About Stephen Hawking.” Number one was, “He had a neuromuscular disease.” Hawking was among the most celebrated and accomplished physicists of all time; yet, the BBC deemed his “diversity” as the most important aspect to know about him. How is that perspective even possible in this era where “diversity” is the norm?

We all know that there are pockets in the UK and the US where people are strikingly similar. However, when we look at our countries as wholes – and even within those pockets – it’s impossible to find a true norm. Humans simply vary significantly by ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, physical attributes, political perspectives, and on and on and on. Even in repressed cultures, this exists – it just can’t be expressed. Therefore, because everyone is ultimately different, we’re all the same. Within that framework, the emphasis rightfully shifts to what was truly unique about Hawking: his talents.

Since 1989, I’ve had the opportunity to attend and work Abilities Expos. They are a traveling consumer trade show for disability-related products. The shows average an attendance of 3,500 individuals with disabilities, family and friends. As many of us say, disability doesn’t discriminate, so beyond disability, “diversity” is the norm. Unlike what we see in general society, everyone is recognized as the same because everyone is different. In that, it’s the most harmonious, respectful environment I’ve ever been in, as everyone is purely acknowledged as a person. You might say, Hawking is rightly viewed first and foremost for his contributions to science in such a “community. “

It raises the question, then, of why doesn’t this exist in the whole of society?

The answer is, if you believe the sociology, it’s fed by the innate fear of some toward difference. The result is a catch 22. Everyone is different, so when some have an innate fear of others, they naturally differentiate, creating false norms and thereby “diversity.” If Hawking’s neuromuscular condition freaks you out, it’s what you’re going to focus on.

As Hawking noted, maybe some day we’ll colonize other planets. Hopefully on those planets all will rightfully, logically see Hawking as a brilliant physicist who happened to use a wheelchair – and also realize that there’s no need for a word like “diversity,” where we’re all the same because we’re all different.