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Being Different

I immigrated to the United States when I was 6 years old; a few months shy of turning 7. I started second grade without a word of English. My mother dressed me in what she thought was cute, but her idea of cute in the 80s was not American’s view of a fashionable 7-year-old. So at age 7, I started elementary school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, surrounded by kids that did not look like me and couldn’t talk to me. The games that were played on the playground and the topics talked about in the classroom were foreign to me. I remember once I was asked to write about how I felt when I got an allowance from my parent. I had no idea what that was and could not do that assignment. My failure to complete that assignment was probably seen as obstinance and not confusion. 

Kids and teachers probably thought I was strange; I was different. That first year of attending elementary school I was unable to play by their rules, so I was left out and couldn’t participate. It was only after third grade and fourth grade, when I could speak the language of the majority, dressed like everyone else did and knew how to play the games that other kids played that I was allowed to participate and be part of the group. By 9 years old I learned the lesson from the idiom “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Society does not like different; a little uniqueness is ok, but when you are no longer what society deems normal, either you conform to the acceptable norms, or you are rejected.

As World Renew designs our international development projects, we have conversations with communities to understand how they see people with physical and psychological disabilities in their villages

My experience of not fitting in  was short-lived and easily corrected. However, there are some people who will experience this their whole lives. People with disabilities are often othered and kept out by barriers that other people don’t face. Even intothe 1980s, people with down syndrome were denied rights that the rest of society enjoyed. Up until 1984, doctors in the United States could refuse to perform life saving procedures like heart surgeries on people with down syndrome. People with mental disability and down syndrome were sent to mental institutions or “hospitals”. It was only in 1963 when President Kennedy began a movement to deinstitutionalize disabled people and the government began to provide health programs and educational and rehabilitation services that those with mental disabilities receive support that allowed them to participate in society and lead full and rewarding lives.  And in the decades that followed, more services were provided for families so that they could care for their children with special needs. Physical therapy, occupational therapy and other in-home support were provided for people with disabilities As a result, many of these children learned skills and had government services and support so they could participate in things they were previously excluded from. Simple things like a ramp meant that those with physical disabilities could go to the movies. Special schools or classes equipped taught  children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This support allowed parents to be able to raise their children at home. This support allowed adults with special needs to hold a job and participate in society.

It should not be up to people who are not being included to find a way in. Those who are keeping people out, must find a way to open the doors. When I immigrated to the United States, those English as a Second Language (ESL) classes helped me to learn the language. The ESL teacher was equipped to teach me and she made me feel cared for. For those with learning disabilities, there are teachers equipped to alter the way teaching is done to help them learn. For those with physical disabilities, there are equipment and tools available that allow them to participate in everyday activities, like special spoons so they can feed themselves and cars that they can drive.

Proverbs 14:31 reminds us that “whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” As World Renew designs our international development projects, we have conversations with communities to understand how they see people with physical and psychological disabilities in their villages, and we design our project to intentionally include them and remove physical barriers, psychological barriers and prejudices that keep them from participating in everyday village activities. For you, it may require you to identify the groups of people that have been excluded around you. Who are the refugees and immigrants? What are the structure barriers and prejudices that will not allow their voices to be heard?   How can you “speak up” for them? How can you help them to access services that they need? Or it may be a time to self-reflect- what beliefs or practices do you have that devalue and discriminate against people who you consider different?  

Photo by Marcus Aurelius


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