I had the opportunity to work with my first employee with a known disability about twelve years ago. I use the term “opportunity” because that relationship changed how I view each individual I meet. I learned that everyone is uniquely gifted, whether with a specific skill or a distinct manner of communicating that challenges me to enlarge my perspective. I also learned that there is often more than one way to do a job and sometimes we need to rethink or abandon long-standing ideas and policies. As a manager, some of the accommodations I have made over the years have improved the way we do our work, not just for those employees who need the accommodation, but for everyone around them. This is good for business and instills the idea that we can and should welcome anyone who wants to do meaningful work, regardless of his or her disability.
A few years ago, my son was diagnosed with two different disabilities. Both are visible and both challenged him to cope in a world that often tries to set apart or marginalize those who are different. As someone who works daily with people who have disabilities, I thought I understood the bias and stigma that come with having a disability. Because of my proximity to the challenges my employees face every day, I thought I knew what my son must be going through and as a mother, I was afraid for him.
My son taught me that the anxiety I felt when he was diagnosed was mine alone, not his. While he may be challenged in ways that other children are not, part of what makes him special is due to the fortitude and determination he has not to let his disabilities matter to anyone other than himself. His disabilities have become just part of who he is. He has not allowed the disabilities to become a label.
This, I believe…that every person comes into our lives for a reason. And if we accept the idea that everyone has value, then we begin to realize that a person’s uniqueness, no matter how big or how small, touches everyone around them. In recognizing those who are different, we may choose to relegate them to the margins, embrace them, or ignore them. I believe that if I embrace differences, my world is a much richer place. By seeking out difference, we take a step further and begin to focus on what we can do as individuals, not on what we can’t do. This, I believe.