Inclusion. I see this word flickering across social media frequently these days. As popular as it is on Instagram and Facebook, it was unpopular during most of my years growing up. Yet its significance in the quality of my life, and for the possibilities that illuminated my mind, was enormous.
My classmates made it clear they were afraid to share crayons with me for fear of catching whatever malady they thought was swimming through my veins. Feeling deeply wounded and sidelined, I could not understand why my fellow kindergartners did not want to play tetherball with me at recess.
My mother and I founded a nonprofit organization when I was a child, mostly in response to the exclusion I experienced in my community. Recognizing a deep need for acceptance and fun, and a safe space to belong, my mom leaped to the rescue.
A grassroots effort to improve my quality of life quickly bloomed into a fully inclusive nonprofit organization that provided recreational activities for children with and without special needs. In addition to creating a safe haven for every child to thrive, we embarked on disability awareness and advocacy missions.
I vividly remember participating in speaking engagements, my blond pigtails swinging. My voice would expand throughout the room in an effort to integrate service club organizations, special educators, and even local government officials.
“I have a disability. I am not my disability,” I would say.
I spoke those words with urgency. I invited others to consider a new paradigm in which inclusion would be the norm, as we would mindfully recognize people with so-called disabilities as fully capable citizens that contribute to society.
My fervor for helping to create a more welcoming and inclusive world continued throughout my teenage and college years. As I provided disability sensitivity training on my college campus and throughout the community, I was constantly reminded of the level of inequality coursing through the bloodstream of humanity. It needed to change. I was determined to help make that happen.
All these years later, it seems as though the word “inclusion“ has become a catchphrase. However, the reverberations of true philosophical shifting seem difficult to find. In an unusual twist, I found one this week.
The small craft coffee business I co-own released a new brew a few days ago. The special holiday offering is named in honor of a beautiful girl I’ve come to love from afar over the years via social media. Her mother tenderly shares her journey with Down syndrome and cancer, and reading her story tugs at my heartstrings. We hope to help support them with this new initiative.
As I held the new coffee bags in my hand and peered at the wonderment reflected in this girl’s face on the label, I felt something come full circle. I was overwhelmed with excitement as I delivered the coffee to local stores to grace the shelves with the type of faces we don’t typically see in public venues.
As her blond ponytail and curious eyes stared back at me, I knew the image of this girl represented inclusion. This seamless melding into mainstream society, the showcasing of this stunning girl, and the celebration of diversity infused me with hope.
This moment was the culmination of all my years of advocacy, and it inspired me to continue pushing for a world that will welcome this little girl and encourage her to pick up her crayons and color her own reality, along with the everyone else.
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