The world is now comprised of 7 billion human beings, each completely different with distinctive characteristics and personalities. This complex diversity of humanity is astonishingly beautiful. Every person contributes to life in his or her own way which allows individuals to work together to create a better society for all of us.

Although the subject of diversity usually revolves around gender, age and ethnicity, there is another significant portion of the U.S. population that must be considered; these are individuals with disabilities. The diversity represented by this segment of our society defines what it means to be human. People with disabilities make up the largest minority in America, and it is a minority that many of us will join at some point in our lives.

The numbers regarding disabilities, disorders, and diseases are compelling.

The population of the United States is 318 million.

The government estimate of people in the U.S. who live with a disability is 56,700,000. That is about 18% of the population or almost 1 out of every 5 Americans. And as our society ages that percentage will increase.

Here is a breakdown of significant health challenges.

  • Hearing loss: 35,000,000
  • Vision loss: 20,600,000
  • Speech issues: 7,500,000
  • Survivors of traumatic brain injuries: 5,300,000
  • Dementia: 5,000,000 
  • Survivors of strokes: 4,000,000
  • Autism spectrum disorder: 3,500,000
  • Epilepsy: 3,000,000
  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder: 3,000,000
  • Living with spinal cord injuries: 1,200,000
  • Cerebral palsy: 750,000
  • Down syndrome: 400,000
  • Multiple Sclerosis: 400,000
  • Fragile X syndrome: 100,000
  • Brain tumors diagnosed each year: 69,700
  • Parkinson’s disease diagnosed each year: 50,000

But even though there are tens of millions of citizens with some type of intellectual or physical challenge, there is still a tendency to discount, disregard or disrespect those that are perceived as being different. For some people, diversity is a negative word used to promote the acceptance of those they would rather avoid. However, in the case of people with disabilities, their presence is ubiquitous. It is the one minority that is prevalent everywhere on earth, and its numbers are continually growing.

The refusal to accept the diversity that is all around us is based, in part, on the inexplicable belief that some lives are worth more than others. This disturbing view is held because of a need to feel superior at the expense of those who might require assistance to live the fullest life possible. Although there is no basis in fact for this misconception, it is perpetuated by those who cling to the illusion that there is some type of “normal” that should be used to arbitrarily judge everyone. However, that does not make sense. Everyone has a different opinion of what is normal, and since every human being on earth is unique, there is no such standard.

But when we are willing to let go of our bias and accept the diversity represented by those with disabilities, we begin to see the world in a new way. It gives us an awareness of the challenges that others live with, which makes us more tolerant. We realize that we are all sharing the human experience, and there is no need to dominate or intimidate. In fact, quite the opposite is true. We become more understanding and compassionate, which negates the need to feel superior to others.

The acceptance of diversity also opens up opportunity to all areas of society by giving equal power to every person and every group. It allows us to acknowledge others no matter what their circumstances might be. It gives us an appreciation for each individual and their respective skills and talents. For people with disabilities, who for decades were marginalized and excluded from the mainstream, the acceptance of diversity is liberating in the sense that they are finally treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Embracing diversity allows us to accept people without judging them. No one is required to live up to another person’s expectations. It strengthens our culture by promoting inclusion for all. We become better people when we reach out to everyone and accept them for who they are.

It provides us with the wisdom to see past our superficial differences, and it shows us that, at our core, we are all the same. Acknowledging the reality of diversity and rejecting the illusion of “different” is critical in creating the willingness to support those with intellectual or physical challenges as complete human beings deserving of understanding and acceptance.

Through the beauty of diversity, we allow each person to be themselves. We lift the constraints of narrow-minded assumptions and misconceptions that can prevent people from reaching their full potential. In the case of those with disabilities, it helps us focus on their strengths instead of dwelling on their challenges.

The acceptance of diversity is naturally inclusive because it provides everyone with the chance to contribute in meaningful ways, which allows all of society to enjoy the rewards of their efforts. Supporting diversity in our communities empowers each of us, which is why our individuality should always be celebrated. 

The world will become a far more compassionate place when men and women with intellectual and physical challenges are accepted as equals with the same rights as every other citizen.

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