As a #blind woman, I am used to being overlooked or ignored by sighties. It’s an annoying truth that comes hand in hand with having a #disability. Some people don’t know how to talk to me. Others are uncomfortable that I can’t make eye contact. Some immature twenty-something’s probably still feel being different makes me uncool. All this simply means that I get to surround myself with the very best of society. My friends and significant others are some of the highest quality people you will ever meet. I’m a little biased, I know, but in many ways, it’s true. These people aren’t my friends because they pity me. They aren’t my friends because I need them to help me. They’re my friends because they see me for me, not my disability. These friendships have gotten me through good times and bad, heartbreak and joy, failure and triumph. I don’t know where I’d be without them, nowhere good. Social networks are as important to me as breathing. Finding your people, your friends, is essential to happiness. But what about the people out there who aren’t as lucky as I am? What about those differently-abled children who haven’t yet made friends? Social inclusion is the cornerstone of confidence, belonging, and success. Can you imagine living without it?
I recently traveled to California for my second guide dog. If you have followed me for a while, you’ll know that the experience of getting my first guide turned my life around. The three weeks I spent at Guide Dogs for the Blind was the first time in a long time I felt accepted and included. Round two was just as memorable. I reconnected with a classmate from eight years ago and made two new lifelong friends. Guide Dogs for the Blind is a magical place where everyone, not just my favorite circle of people, sees me for me. At GDB, all blindness means is your fluffy friend has a job to do.
And so, I ask you. What if the rest of the world was like this subsection of California? What if everyone recognized the value of different perspectives and walks of life? What if there were no more mean girls, only includers? What if everyone noticed each other’s strengths and weaknesses and realized we are all equal?
We can all play a role in creating this reality.
For my part, I will never turn down the chance to teach others, but most especially children, about being blind. Whether it’s a child I’m babysitting, an inquisitive youngster at the park, or an entire class of kindergarteners I am presenting to, I will always have time to share. If my words and experiences help just one child, sighted or blind, it will have been time well spent.
You can help as well.
Everyone influences the next generation. What would happen if we taught kids to appreciate the unique-ness of the differently-abled children in their class? Maybe it would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Maybe that child would grow up to be an employer who encourages diversity in the workplace, not just because it looks good, but because they know the value of different points of view. Maybe they’d become a disability advocate, or a computer science major pushing for accessible content, or a school teacher who encourages more children to value other’s differences.
An important caveat to successful social inclusion is that it is born out of the right reasons. Parents, for instance, don’t tell your child to befriend the blind girl to be nice. Your child will get the message that this friendship is somehow charitable. Instead, socialize your children to appreciate the unique-ness of disability. Let them see how fun sign language and Braille are to learn. Encourage them to find the best way of communicating with someone who is non-verbal or who has autism. Your child will grow up with more empathy, more understanding, and a much more diverse outlook on life.
Be kind, and be aware.
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