Is "Different" A Bad Thing?
Imagine you have a room full of young children. Maybe a kindergarten class, or a bunch of kiddos gathered together for a birthday party. A dozen little ones or more. Now imagine that every child has brown hair... except one. One little girl with a beautiful head of bright red curls. If any of the other children in the room noticed and pointed out her hair, what would you do? Would you silence them, tell them they were being rude, and insist they completely ignore the difference?
I hope not.
Because if you did any of those things, it would likely send the message to the little girl (and the group) that there is something wrong with having red hair. That, somehow, it's "bad." When something is different and good- we celebrate it! When someone is unusually beautiful, athletic, or intelligent we have no problem talking about it. But when the difference is "bad" we insist that everyone turn a blind eye to it. Don't acknowledge it. Pretend it's not there.
But it is there!
Change the situation. The little girl with red hair is now a little boy in a wheelchair. An adult with cerebral palsy. A teenager with Down Syndrome. Are you getting uncomfortable?
You may be thinking "No, no, no! I don't ignore differences because of my own comfort, I'm just concerned about the individual! I wouldn't want to put all the attention on them and make them uncomfortable." That is a great point and very thoughtful. However, there is a balance between completely ignoring something and shining a spotlight on it.
Let's return to the analogy about the little red-headed girl. If you, as the adult, entered the room and just gawked at the child... that would be uncomfortable. If you exclaimed "Look at that hair! You are the only child in this room who doesn't have brown hair. Wow! You must find yourself in situations all the time where you are the only person with your hair color. Everyone, look at this hair! Stop what you're doing and come look at her hair." You would likely make the poor thing want to curl up and hide. If her parent was nearby you might be in for it. On the other hand, you can enter a room like this and treat all the kids the same while at the same time acknowledging the hair difference in a comfortable way. Maybe you don't bring it up, but when another child does you celebrate it. "Yes, it is lovely isn't it? Very different from the color of my hair. Have you ever met anyone else with hair like that?" Now you've started a healthy conversation about diversity that doesn't have the little girl smack dab in the middle of the spotlight. There's plenty of room for that discussion to move to other hair colors, and maybe even skin colors, and who knows what else! You can also respectfully gage the child's willingness to discuss her hair color. If she seems uneasy you can change the subject, but who knows? She may be perfectly comfortable with talking about it! After all, having red hair is a part of her life.
(Do you get that we're not talking about hair here?)
Here's a good rule of thumb: The best way you can be sure that you are keeping this balance and treating people equally, though not identically, is by remembering one simple thing. That room with all the children? In that group, the little red-headed girl may be the one who is most obviously different, but you wouldn't say that she is the only one in the group who is different at all, would you? Just because the other children share a common hair color doesn't mean that they have the same strengths, weaknesses, interests, backgrounds, struggles... It would actually be unfair to them for you to treat them all 100% the same just because they aren't physically different from one another in an obvious way. Of course you would have to get to know each child to determine what they needed and didn't need as far as "special treatment" goes. If you can enter a room and remember that
1. the most obvious differences are not the only differences, and
2. sometimes they're not even the ones that will impact the group the most
then you can get to know each and every person as an individual first and foremost. We are all a mix of beauty and brokenness, strengths and weaknesses, assets and liabilities. We just hope that people will look past the negative, past the labels like "disorganized," "emotionally needy," "special needs," (insert whatever plagues you here!) in order to see all the good things we have to offer. Don't we?
It can certainly be difficult. A person with a disability isn't that disability... however, that disability is a part of who they are. It would be easier to either ignore it completely or let it become the only thing that we see. But neither of those work for anyone involved. Don't be discouraged! Finding balance always takes a little wobbling but you'll get the the hang of it if you don't give up.
I want to been seen, but not gawked at. I'd like my strengths to be celebrated, but I don't want to have to hide my weaknesses in shame. I am not the same as everyone else in every way, but neither are you. None of us are.