Tuesday, February 3, 2009


I was thinking about how tolerance is mostly a learned thing, with a dash of innateness thrown in...one that starts with your own parents and the example they provide as you grow.

In my home, no one (that I recall) ever stressed that people with disabilities weren't freaks or something to shy away from. Sure, they may have said it to me and I've just forgotten, but I think if it had been an important lesson that my parents wanted to teach me, that I would remember it.

When I was about seven or eight years old, I had an 'encounter' with Gay, a disabled student that attended my elementary school. Gay was at least a few years older than I. Everyone knew who she was, yet no one knew anything about her other than the fact that she was 'the girl who walked with braces, wore thick glasses, and a helmet on her head.' My guess now is that Gay suffered from cerebral palsy and other cognitive impairments. I don't ever recall seeing Gay anywhere except slowly making her way through the hallways when I was on my way to the bathroom or the library. Did she have a homeroom? What did she do all day? I had no idea.

Then one day I found myself in the nurse's office only a few feet away from Gay who was laying on the cot, clearly not feeling well. I admit I didn't know where to look or what to say. And then it happened...Gay turned gray and projectile vomited all over the floor. A small amount landed on my right hand. MY RIGHT HAND! The one I eat with! The one I brush my teeth with! How in the world could this have happened to ME?! I don't recall my exact reaction, but I clearly recall its aftermath. I scrubbed that hand with hot, soapy water, and yet it wasn't good enough. I ate and brushed my teeth with my left hand for what felt like weeks, but I'm sure was only a matter of days. I fretted over the fact that the girl with the helmet had thrown up on me and what that might mean. I was not sure why I thought her vomit was worse than everyone else's, I just knew that it was.

I was never cruel to Gay, unless you count not taking the time to even share a smile with her as cruel. I think about her to this day and wonder if she is even still alive. I have always had compassion for the 'underdog.' My Dad used to tell me I took all of the stray dogs in, literally and figuratively; though the human strays were kids who came from broken families, or who switched schools a lot; NOT kids with disabilities. I just wish that my parents had explained to me that people with disabilities aren't scary. Because I think if they had, I could have done a lot of great things as a kid with that understanding under my belt.

And so I'll end with the famous quote by Ghandi that I'm sure many of you have heard:

'Be the change you want to see in the world.'

Tolerance and understanding has to begin somewhere. Why not start with you?

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