Teaching us | GUEST OPINION

The rich rewards of diversity never cease to amaze me. When we engage fully with people who experience the world differently than we do, we can expect to be inspired. Two stories came across my desk this week that illustrate the point.

The first is about a couple in Everett who, according to newspaper reports, celebrated their recent wedding by inviting nearly fifty people with developmental disabilities to serve as bridesmaids, groomsmen, flower girls, and so on. "Why wouldn't a bride want people in her wedding who are examples of love, patience and compassion," the bride was quoted as saying.

Having loved and nurtured a daughter with severe disabilities until she died tragically of her condition several years ago at age 11, the bride has come to know something about human value. "People with disabilities, they know how to love, and they know how to forgive, and they know how to suffer," she told a reporter. "They were my teachers."

Not that everything about the wedding was easy or society page material. "I know that someone will have a meltdown and someone will drool, and that's OK," she said last week. "Someone will know that they are loved because they weren't shushed or left at home for the big occasion." There was even uncertainty at the church where the wedding took place, despite the best intentions of everyone involved and an outpouring of material support. "It's good for our congregation to be exposed to different people. When something is unknown, it's a little intimidating," the pastor said. "As I got to know these families, I realized their kids are normal. They want to sing, they want to play." Exactly! Normal, except that they know how to love and forgive in a way that inspires and enriches the rest of us.

The second story involves a woman who has worked her way up through a variety of training programs and was recently promoted to a new position in a local manufacturing company. Like the pastor mentioned in the previous story, when something is unknown it can be a little intimidating. But the other employees seemed to accept Hannah for the dedicated worker she is and to forgive any little idiosyncrasies associated with her developmental condition – including the lunches she took from the lunchroom and then returned with apologies. (Among other things, Hannah is subject to an involuntary eating disorder).

Now it turns out that Hannah has developed a serious new medical condition that surgery and aggressive medication have so far been unable to correct. Her ability to continue working is now in question. She is facing the sort of complex and terrifying medical issues that cause the strongest of us to wilt in fear and self-pity. Yet Hannah loves to work and is at her post every day she's not at the medical center.

Last week the general manager noticed a card being passed around discreetly among employees on the shop floor, a common enough workplace ritual. When the card finally reached him, he saw it was a "get well" card for Hannah signed by all of her co-workers. And as he opened the card, $380 fell out onto his desk – a gift of hope, a gift of the heart, a gift of solidarity, a gift that says "we want to do something" for a fellow employee who is one of us, one of the team.

There is something so beautiful about these stories and everyone in them. A beauty born of suffering to be sure, a suffering not to be wished on anyone. I read these stories over and over again, feeling (to borrow Joanna Macy's wonderful phrase) as if I had been "dipped in beauty" by such pure expressions of humanity and love.

Inclusion is not without its challenges as the bride, the pastor, and Hannah's fellow employees can attest. But the rewards are rich in qualities that speak to what it means to be human, qualities that enhance and strengthen any group endeavor from a manufacturing team to a church congregation – or even a wedding party.

Tom Everill is President & CEO of Northwest Center. Contact him at inside@nwcenter.org

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