We all admire courage. Bravery is considered one of the finest qualities an individual can possess. That is why we honor those who demonstrate courage with medals and awards.
We put them on a pedestal and look up to them. We emulate them and wonder if we could have the same level of fearlessness that they display. Our society makes heroes out of those who exhibit this important quality. We are drawn to it, and we seek it out from the everyday experience. Being courageous is an honorable thing.
Of course, there are many kinds of courage. Sometimes it is expected from certain people because of their line of work. Police officers, firefighters, those in the military and medical personnel are often called upon to take heroic actions. It is what they do, and our society would be far less safe without their selfless contributions.
We have come to admire courage in athletes. We watch with awe as an individual fights through a painful injury and keeps playing. We admire those who are willing to take risks we would never even consider, whether it is driving a car 200 mph or hurtling down a snow-packed mountain, we are captivated by those who risk their bodies and their lives to do what seems impossible.
Because it comes in many forms, courage can be spectacular or silent. It can be viewed by the entire world or it can happen completely out of sight. It can be displayed by one person or an entire nation.
In the past, there have been brave citizens who have stood up for causes that truly changed society in a meaningful way. Individual acts of courage can often be the catalyst to a movement that improves the lives of millions. These people have demonstrated one of the most important and rarest forms of courage, and that is the courage to care.
Caring requires effort and sacrifice. It forces us to take action. It does not allow us to be lazy, selfish or apathetic. It demands that we stop fixating on our problems and acknowledge the needs of others. We often have to step away from the crowd and be willing to be in the minority. It requires us to be our best.
That is the kind of courage shown by individuals with developmental disabilities and their families.
Put yourself in this example.
Fifty-three years ago, your son was born with a developmental disability. Doctors said your baby would be a burden to you for the rest of your life, and they urged you to place your son in an institution to spare you the expense, pain, and humiliation of having what the medical profession referred to as a less than “perfect” child in your family. You refused.
Because of his disability, your son endured a long series of painful and life-threatening medical procedures as he was growing up. You lived with the constant fear of losing him, but you knew you had no choice but to go through with the surgeries so that he could have the highest quality of life possible.
Your child struggled in school and quickly became a target for cruel bullying that threatened to destroy his self-esteem. The teachers and administration seemed powerless to stop it, but you refused to let your son be a victim because of the ignorance of others, so you became his advocate and stood up for his right to be treated as an equal human being.
Your son finished school only to face a 70% unemployment rate for individuals with developmental disabilities. Employers would not even consider hiring him for fear that their customers would not feel comfortable around him or that it would be cost-prohibitive to make adaptions in the work environment to accommodate him. But your son refused to give up his dream of having a job and together you searched until you found an employer who accepted him for who he was. Your child was hired, and his life immediately changed for the better.
That is the courage of real life. In this example, difficult decisions had to be made and, in each case, the people did what they believed was right, no matter what others thought.
Unfortunately, it is easy to miss the courageous efforts that people with intellectual challenges and their families display every day. Their willingness to make sacrifices, their ability to harness the strength of the human spirit to conquer their fears and their persistence in searching for true acceptance are all powerful forms of courage.
For people with developmental disabilities, courage means facing a society that sometimes judges you because you look or sound different. It means attempting to live a full and rewarding life, the way you choose, even though there are those around you who can be insensitive or intolerant.
Obviously, courage is something we all need from time to time, but for people with developmental disabilities, and their families, it’s a daily fact of life. To endure decades of tests, evaluations, plans, programs and medical procedures is not easy. They are forced to live with situations and conditions that most of us will never encounter.
We only have to pay attention and be aware of their efforts and sacrifices to see that their lives are an unending series of courageous acts. Instead of judging them for what they cannot do, we should appreciate their perseverance and determination to live their lives to the fullest under what are often incredibly difficult circumstances.
The next time you witness an act of courage, stop and think about those who have to brave every day of their lives because they have no choice.
Would you or I have the courage to face the challenges endured by people with developmental disabilities?