Today, the nation pays tribute to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, and rightly so.
Still,I can’t help but ask why so many discussions involving discrimination and equal rights focus mainly on race. Skin color represents one form of injustice against which we must be vigilant. But the definition of discrimination is much broader. Discrimination involves more than only race, something those with special needs understand far too well. That’s why I believe we should all take time to understand and reflect on the meaning and power of today’s celebration.
Robert F. Kennedy once said, “When the rights of one are denied, the rights of all are endangered.” Like Kennedy, Dr. King knew this reality well and spoke eloquently about it. As someone who parented a child with cerebral palsy for nearly thirteen years, I understand the power of that statement well, too.
It wasn’t race that first inspired me to embrace the doctrine of equal rights, although I support the continued struggle for racial equality. It was my challenging role as the parent of a child with a disability.
I am an upper-middle class, white female with a successful career as an author, journalist and speaker on special needs issues. I have been married to the same man for thirty years. I have two children and live in an upper-middle class suburb, complete with a white picket fence. I have never gone to bed hungry, experienced homelessness or been the victim of racial profiling.
But I’ve felt the sting of discrimination intended to deny someone basic human rights. My brushes with intolerance stemmed from the limiting words and actions directed toward my son, who had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair. Eric passed away in February 2003 at the tender age of twelve, but each act of intolerance directed toward him is forever deeply etched in my mind.
From all the outward appearances, no one would believe that I would be the subject of discrimination. Our definition is too narrow, something that allows many people to easily turn the other cheek to this discussion.
Fifty-four million Americans have disabilities; 170 million people worldwide have intellectual disabilities. People with special needs represent the largest minority group in this country, but their struggles are rarely included in discussions of discrimination and equality. Yet, the societal struggles faced by people of race closely mirrored those of my son, making the fight for equal rights increasingly relevant to my own life, too.
Eric could not walk or throw a baseball, tie his shoes or speak full sentences. Were it not for my passionate commitment to him, he might have been denied access to his neighborhood school or missed outings because of accessibility issues he could neither address nor resolve. My demanding advocacy role has granted me renewed appreciation for the Civil Rights Movement for the work of Dr. King, and for the struggles and accomplishments of those with disabilities, achievements that too often go unrecognized.
I have renewed respect for the passionate commitment of those involved in the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and the tireless work of visionaries like Jesus, Gandhi, and Mother Theresa. Because of Eric’s needs, I’ve learned that discrimination isn’t always about skin color. Often it represents a blatant disregard and intolerance for human differences, be it race, ability, age, appearances, sexual orientation or cultural beliefs. We can and must do better by all people.
With a solid focus on my child’s intrinsic value, I worked hard to counter stereotypes about him and others with disabilities, but it wasn’t easy. It still isn’t. With his bright mind, eager spirit and remarkable patience, my son taught me volumes about forgiveness and the value of diversity, and the importance of speaking up for individual justice.
My advocacy hasn’t been free of heartache.
In an increasingly diverse society, we are all beneficiaries of the work of those who fight discrimination in any form. Only circumstances separate us. As Dr. King eloquently stated in his now famous speech, “What impacts one, impacts all.” Our discussions about discrimination and equal rights should include a broader understanding of its impact on all of society, including those with special needs.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s message was one of equality, peace and justice. He had a dream that all people who suffer at the hands of discrimination of any form would be truly free. I share that dream, Mr. King. That is why I recognize Martin Luther King Day, and that’s why I believe that all those who care about individuals with special needs should, too.
My dream for a better life for my son, and millions of other children with disabilites, lives on. I know that Dr. King would support my dream, too.