The importance of embracing each other’s differences and disabilities
As a teacher, bringing children together and sharing some commonalities with friends of all shapes, colors, sizes and abilities are simple. It’s simple because they are all in a classroom where respect for one another is required. The trouble starts when the children and adults are no longer required to be kind or to respect one another. It goes from a classroom rule to a societal suggestion. The importance lies in the beholder.
Teaching the importance of embracing each other’s differences and disabilities can begin at a very young age through modeling, telling stories, reading books, and taking the time to talk about differences. If you model for your child or students that everyone matters, they will be more likely to mimic that behavior. If you tell them to be kind to everyone and then you are rude to the custodian or the security guard, what are you really teaching them? Positive change and acceptance of others starts within.
Reading diverse books to your children will show them that each character, regardless of looks or abilities, has their own challenges and successes. That every person is the main character of their own lives and that they can be whatever they can dream of… if they work hard for it. Children also need to see themselves in books, TV and media outlets because then they know that anything is possible. Children need role models who inspire and teach about the world around them and being relatable is step one. That’s why I wrote my series, “Completely Me”. Growing up with a physical disability that kept me in and out of doctor’s offices and hospitals as a young child, I needed a book or a character that made me feel important and wanted. There was nothing out there. I remember that my mom used to buy all of these “different” stories like “Chrysanthemum” about a girl who has a different name and “Stephanie’s Ponytail” about a girl who wants to be unique but everyone copies her. These are amazing stories, and some of my favorites to this day… but where is the diversity? Where is the limb-different community? Where are the children with mutism or dwarfism as the main characters? We have an obligation to our community and our children to show them that everyone matters and that every background, religion, race, and ability are valid and that we all deserve respect.
Throughout my schooling and personal experiences, I have found that most of the intolerance and disrespect of differences stems from a lack of knowledge. This lack of knowledge can be dangerous, which is why it is vital to start these simple changes in your daily lives. If you begin to read diverse stories and model respect for everyone, your children will follow suit. You can have conversations about differences and use teaching tools to support you if you are uncomfortable or nervous about which words to use.
If you see someone on the sidewalk with a disability, instead of saying “don’t stare” say “hi” and ask what their name is… find commonalities. The same is true of a neighbor of a different race. These external differences should not impact how you treat someone as we are all here together. In other cultures, there is a saying that translates to “I am because we are” this loosely means that humanity is a quality that we owe to each other. Other cultures believe that we are all interdependent. Our culture does not utilize a saying like this but imagine if we did. Imagine if we all understood that we need one another to excel and be happy. This is true, just as it is in nature. Nature is understood to have a balance of prey and predator, of a co-existence. We need oxygen from trees and they need our carbon dioxide. The same is true of humanity. Once we learn that our differences make us perfect and that we are stronger together, there is no limit to what we can achieve!
Justine Green, Ed.D. is an educator, award-winning author, and disability advocate based in Boca Raton, Florida, where she currently serves as the Principal at Tamim Academy. Justine was born with Atresia and Microtia. Microtia is a condition where the outer ear does not develop properly and Atresia is the absence of the ear canal, leaving her deaf in her left ear. Knowing she was different from birth, and boasting three reconstructive surgeries under her belt, Justine learned to read lips and worked hard through school. She used her disability as motivation instead of an excuse, and ultimately found her life’s purpose through these challenges. Her passion for inspiring others moved her to write a story based on her own life, Completely Me, to teach readers to love themselves and others, and that everyone’s imperfections are what make them perfect. Dr. Green is the author of award-winning children’s book series Completely Me and Completely Emme.