I got an arresting perspective about discrimination at my high school reunion last week. A classmate and I were sitting at a table away from the crowd, catching up on the years since graduation. He talked about raising a niece with a physical disability and said, “I thought being black was tough, but that doesn't come close to the discrimination I see against people with disabilities. Sometimes they aren't even treated like people.”
That meant a lot coming from an African American man who is old enough to remember the day Martin Luther King was assassinated.
We went to school at Central High, the oldest of the four high schools operating in Springfield, Missouri at the time. Most of the black kids in town lived in neighborhoods in our district. I heard about rumors from other high schools that Central was a rough school and we routinely had fights in the halls. When the city redrew the school district boundaries around population shifts, some parents moved rather that have their kids transfer to Central.
Which was a shame. Their kids missed out on a great experience. The rumors were nonsense, and having black and white kids attending school together was the absolute best way to combat discrimination. We got to see that people are people. I had an outstanding senior class. My classmates with all different shades of skin went on to do extraordinary things in Springfield and across the country. We have business executives, educators, doctors, lawyers, scientists, musicians, military commanders and more. Many of my black classmates had to overcome racial discrimination to succeed.
It struck me when my classmate, who has an inspiring story of his own, made such a strong point about discrimination faced by people with disabilities.
During my life, one of the main factors I've seen in reducing racial discrimination has been proximity. Just like the parents who didn't want their kids going to Central, it's easy to make false assumptions when you don't have first hand experience. Proximity can change that. In my first jobs after college, I saw employees who were initially suspicious of black people hired into their groups gradually change their minds as they worked side by side as equals. They saw “different” people weren't that different. The real cross-over point came when blacks and whites became friends and started socializing off the job.
Proximity can be an important tool in dealing with prejudice against individuals with Asperger Syndrome and autism. Many people have the same kind of misconceptions about those on the autism spectrum that they've traditionally held against people of other races, or people who speak a different language, or people who have a physical disability. They can't understand a job well enough to do it. They won't get along with co-workers. They won't be dependable.
Maybe it's rooted in basic fears of people who are different.
But that just means we have to opportunity to help people see past those differences and false assumptions. To help them understand that getting to know people who are different can reveal their talents and abilities. To realize they can be valued friends and dependable, productive workers. I've interviewed supervisors who assessed their employees on the autism spectrum as being more dependable and productive than their typical coworkers. Some have special talents and succeed in highly skilled positions.
We need more education in schools to help students understand and accept classmates who are different. We need opportunities for all students to show their talents and abilities. We need positive, supervised ways for students with physical and mental challenges to interact with general student populations. Every time I hear a story about a student body actively supporting a student with a disability, I think: there are opportunities for those stories in every school in the country.
I was encouraged recently to see the software company SAP announce it would actively recruit people with autism to be employees. I hope we can all seek out stories about people with with challenges who are succeeding and share them with news media outlets. These stories encourage more employers to hire people who don't fit typical stereotypes. And they can inspire people who are different to overcome rejection and keep applying.
I got an early lesson in dealing with discrimination when my grandfather was visiting my home. My father's father was a prejudiced old guy, and used a variation of the “N” word, calling black people, “Nuggins.” My sweet, gentle, accommodating mother heard him make that reference in front of me and my brother. She gently admonished, “We don't use that kind of language in this house, Grandpa.” Grandpa took offense, and left in a huff.
But my mother didn't back down. She knew what was right.
My high school classmate and his niece know what's right.
When we look past our differences to see what what really matters, we all do.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Dan Coulter is the producer of the Intricate Minds series of DVDs that help students understand classmates with Asperger Syndrome and other differences. You can find more articles and information on his website: coultervideo.com.
Copyright 2013 Dan Coulter Used by Permission All Rights Reserved