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Inclusion Column

What really makes us exceptional

By: Angie Vargas

Let me tell you the story of Stella Young. She was a comedian, journalist, and disability rights activist. She was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a disability that mainly affects bones. Therefore, she used a wheelchair for most of her life.

“I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much” is the name of the TEDx that led me to know her. This talk opened my eyes immensely. She explains how she doesn’t think she is exceptional just for the plain fact that she uses a wheelchair. When she was young, she won an “achievement” award but she wondered why, since nothing she had ever done appeared to be a great achievement. It appears that she won the award because she lived a normal life, went to school, had good grades, and had a low key job at her mom’s salon, all of this while using a wheelchair... Stella also mentioned how some people came to her and told her she was inspiring and brave, and even though she knew they meant it as a compliment, she didn’t think it was right. Two reasons for this: first, to society, it looked as if she was achieving something really important, when in reality, she was just using her body to the best of its capacity; and second, saying that she was inspiring or motivating led to believe as if others had low expectations for what people with disabilities are capable of achieving, or that their normal life is such a struggle they shouldn't have to achieve more. This is absolutely wrong. Everyone is destined for greatness.

We need to be careful that when we display pictures and videos of people with disabilities to motivate or inspire others, we are not using them to put our problems in perspective. Doing so would suggest that we might be “luckier” just for the fact that our bodies might look different. We should be doing it for the right reasons. We should learn about their strength, their perseverance, the way they overcome challenges. We need empathy to realize that as human beings we like to be admired and we want to inspire others. So ask yourself, what would be more meaningful to you, being congratulated for existing, or for actually achieving something great, that required effort and that made you feel proud?

My idea is that once we realize this, we can recognize and acknowledge others achievements and strengths by seeing the person for who they are, beyond their disability.

We all have different strengths, we all have different capabilities, we all have different struggles. We have different personalities, we have different physical appearances and we have different ways of thinking. We need to make being different the norm.

We have the power to make this a reality. Teachers and students can make a difference in society by creating an open and caring environment where being “different” is something positive.  This way people will be admired or inspiring to others by the way they learn new things, by how they treat others or by how their strength and resilience led them to overcome challenges.  

The first step is to focus on people as individuals. This needs to apply to disabilities, gender, skin color, religion, culture.. You name it. Diversity has many benefits!

Imagine living in a world where we admire people because of the effort they put into their everyday lives. Imagine that what we see as exceptional and special about people is how they overcome their challenges. Imagine if we lived in a place where everyone knows that being different is what makes us special.

And if these words allow me to empower you to do something it would be to go out and look at things from a different perspective, to show empathy and encourage others to do the same.

"There is no greater disability in society than the inability to see a person as more." -Robert M. Hensel.

I'm not your inspiration, thank you very much | Stella Young