All of us bring something to the table

I recently had the opportunity to collaborate with celebrated chef John Sundstrom, who visited Northwest Center’s early learning and childcare program and offered an interesting take on inclusion. He likened inclusion to a recipe, where each ingredient plays a role in creating a stronger experience. John is passionate about the importance of diverse ingredients, and I realized that’s what great chefs do: bring together unique and catalytic elements in order to make a good dish exceptional.

On a more complex level, the same catalytic effect happens with inclusion and society. Take Tristan ... At the age of two, he enrolled in our early intervention program in order to build a foundation for communication. He receives therapy at home and participates in an early learning classroom, where his therapist uses play and activities to further his language development.

Both Tristan and the other kids in the class benefit from his presence. Tristan sees his peers communicating through speech and gestures, and he employs the techniques he’s learning to follow their lead. At the same time, the other children identify and celebrate each individual’s gifts. Ultimately, society as a whole benefits when all the children in this environment become the next generation of advocates for inclusion.

I know a young man named Spenser who has succeeded in doing exactly that. He grew up with a developmental condition and was dismissed as “an animal” by one school principal who thought he shouldn’t be out in society. Spenser has grown up to be an articulate and personable young man who works at The Garage café in downtown Seattle and plays on basketball and softball teams in his spare time. His supervisor praises Spenser as “organized” and “conscientious,”a valued member of the team.

With the right supports and opportunities in place during his last years of school, Spenser successfully transitioned to the workforce. Now he’s both telling and showing the community that people with developmental conditions like cerebral palsy, autism and Down syndrome want to contribute. He advocates for his peers by saying, “I want people to treat me equally, not like I’m different. We’re all human here, whether we have disabilities or not.”

My friend and colleague Laethan is a seasoned and highly successful disability rights advocate. A graduate of Northwest Center Works job training program, Laethan has held posts on the Shoreline City Council and the Washington State Disability Council. He currently serves on the Northwest Center Board of Directors, and his expertise has proven invaluable. Laethan is particularly proud of his job at Arby’s in Shoreline, where he has shown a great commitment to the customers, staff and the company during his 14 years of employment.

When I think about Tristan, Spenser and Laethan, I see three remarkable people at different stages of life. Tristan is developing the building blocks that will propel his success in school; Spenser completed his education and has joined the work force; Laethan is a leader and model in the community. The common thread is that they are engaged and included, full participants in our community.

Whether it’s with children in the classroom, employees in the workplace or members of the community, our work is to discover what each person brings to the table. The most effective way to do that is by making room at the table for people of all abilities. When everyone is involved, the diversity and uniqueness of each person amplifies the human experience for everyone (like the recipe Chef Sundstrom talked about), and makes a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Tom Everill is the President & CEO of Northwest Center, and collaborates with staff member Alice Thavis on monthly columns for this publication. Contact them at inside@nwcenter.org if there are topics related to people with disabilities that would interest you.

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