Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views, Issue no. 7 March-April 2001

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The Importance of Teaching Children to Celebrate and Value Diversity

By Barbara Kolucki (bakoluck@aol.com)

Similarity and Difference

Perhaps it will never be part of our humanity in this world to value each and every human being, regardless of gender, age, color, nationality, disability or religion. Perhaps there is too much "human" and competitive about us that we will always view some qualities as "better than" or "less than". However, today, when competition in just about every arena is greater than it ever was, when more and more wars and conflicts tear families and countries apart, when globalization makes this world seem smaller - and seemingly more alike - perhaps we need to take stock at what exactly we are teaching our children about similarity and diversity. What perhaps, needs to be re-evaluated and/or changed, especially in our curricula and media for children and in our parenting education programs and materials?

photograph of Maldivian babies in a row

Can we, for example, continue to teach about and celebrate similarities while simultaneously celebrating diversity?Imagine a home, classroom, television program where comparison doesn't matter as much because everyone's uniqueness is treasured and valued. Imagine the same about different groups of people who learn about one another's traditions, culture and abilities as enriching everyone's lives. I am exactly as I am supposed to be and the same for you. My value does not depend on looking or acting a certain way or having certain material possessions. Nor does yours.

Most of my work is outside the United States. This has been the case since 1981. Over this period of time, I cannot count the number of times I have been stopped in my tracks at the words that come out of children as young as 6 years old. A girl in Bangladesh is devastated because she has not been born a boy. A child in Mozambique whose leg was blown off by a landmine does not want to live unless he can "walk again like other kids". A girl in the Maldives will look into the mirror and cry, drink gallons of white milk and put cream on her face everyday so that her dark skin would turn "fair and lovely". And millions upon millions will want to wear Nikes, act like "Ninja Turtles", have a Playstation, get "the bad guy", look and dance like a singer on MTV - and yes, they are often under the age of 6 years!

Studying Child Development in undergraduate and graduate school, I certainly know of the child's basic, developmental need to grow beyond the "self" and begin to understand, identify and appreciate similaritiesbetween individuals and among groups of people. This is a fundamental skill necessary for a child to grow and develop in a healthy way both emotionally and socially. These goals must continue to be taught and nurtured always.

The fields of Conflict Resolutionand Peace Educationoften stress teaching children and adults that "the other"is like us. This, too, is important - not as much in the similarities regarding dress, food, games, etc. (though these are often the easiest for young children to comprehend) - but more importantly with regard to individuals and families who love each other, have similar emotions, try not to hurt oneself or hurt others. Reports from Peace Educationcamps in several countries recount anecdotes pointing out it is these similarities that children feel most strongly after they spend time with "the other"in play and cooperative activities. This, too, should never stop - and perhaps some of these children will remember how they laughed and cried about the same things when they become parents and teach mutual respect to their own children.

Problems with Norms and Yardsticks
Yet, one potential problem in teaching children to "celebrate similarities" is that it is often in relation to some "norm" or "yardstick" - she walks like us, he looks like me, she plays the same game that I do. And for most of the world, this yardstick is frequently the USA (or other Northern or Western countries), often white, male and able-bodied. In parts of the developing world where perhaps the North/West does not have this same influence, the yardstick of male, power and wealth most often apply. Success, beauty, ability and more often now, even "culture", all mean more or less the same thing. What happens is that children often learn that similar equals good. Dissimilar, then, equals different, the "other", and not as good or "right".

Perhaps we need to take a look at giving at least as much attention to consciously celebrating diversityand putting valueon it rather than explicitly or implicitly stressing similarities. Diversity is good. Diversity is needed. Diversity adds valueto the world. The "other" is good. The "other" is needed. The "other" adds values to the world. The "other" is also part of our reality. We consciously seek and define strategies to celebrate reality - acknowledging, respecting and appreciating the fact that humanity is diverse and richer because of this diversity.

photograph of Maldivian parents and siblings with babies

Children and Adults with Disability
The celebration of diversityis important in all aspects of life and in all parts of the world. But perhaps it is most obvious and critical when we are talking about children and adults who are disabled.

In the 1970s, pioneers in the field of disability and special education talked about celebrating difference. Wolf Wolfensberger, Burton Blatt, Ignacy Goldberg, Frances Connor and others promoted legislation for all childrenand encouraged a change in people's attitudes when a child with a disability was born. Pioneering parents of children with disabilities did begin to fight for their children and to celebrate their difference. In the 1980's, Emily Perl Kingsley, a good friend and colleague from the Children's Television Workshop (now "sesameworkshop"), wrote a wonderful essay called "Welcome to Holland". The story is about a mother waiting for the birth of her child and comparing it to planning to take a trip to Italy. At the last moment before landing the airplane, the announcement is made that they have arrived in Holland. "But I never wanted to come to Holland! I haven't the slightest idea of what you do here!"Slowly, as she learns about her new "child with Down Syndrome" and the joy he brings to her life, she discovers that "they've simply taken you to another place. Not what you were expecting, not what you planned - but possibly quite lovely nonetheless."

During these same decades, people with disabilities began to both celebrate their differenceand fight for equal rights. In a manner similar to all civil rights' struggles, they tore down numerous barriers of discrimination in education, employment, as well as access and inclusion in buildings, media and legislation. In the 1970's in the USA, leaders such as Ed Roberts, Judy Heumann, Jason Kingsley, Adrienne Asch and Linda Bove emerged to present some of the first positive, strong, proud role models of disabled persons to little girls and boys. Similar-minded leaders pioneered in other countries at about the same time.

Celebration of Diversity Still Rare
Time has passed. Mainstreaming and inclusion are part of the mandates of many Education Ministries around the world. Television programs, films and a few animated cartoons can be seen including children or adults with disabilities in a variety of ways. Yet when I look at most of these products that have been developed, it is still rare to see a celebration of diversity. Difference does not have to be in the faceof everyone - but we should not shy away from it either. We should "add value"to diversity whenever we can.

It is obviously not true, for example, that any child from a wealthier or more educated family is any brighter or more talented than another child. Nor is it true that a child born disabled is of any less value than a non-disabled child. What is likely to be true, however, is that for a variety of reasons, non-disabled children in many parts of the world are told more often "You can do anything", "You are good enough just as you are", "I am proud of you", etc. Additionally, they see themselvesreflected back in media every single day. The majority culture is celebrated.

What is not as likely is for children in developing parts of the world, those from families who are poor or without "power", or disabled children anywhere - to be told and encouraged to be who they are, to be portrayed and valued just as they are, and for each one's uniqueness and diversity to be celebrated. So - they often grow up feeling inadequate and wanting to "be like someone else"who seems to have more value. Their diversity, their difference is not celebrated.

Children learn what they live
Perhaps, it is not as simple as I am laying it out to be. This valuing of difference must begin in infancy in the words and looks and touch we give to every baby regardless of ability, gender, beauty, status, personality, etc. In our early childhood curricula, parenting programs, in our books, songs and television programs for children - we can begin to celebrate diversityin unique and creative ways. We can and must model it for our children so that they will feel it and practice it in their lives. It can and must become a conscious goal. The authentic development of each and every child and the mutual respect for all children is at stake.

In our parenting programs, we must stress that:
  • Each and every child is unique and that this uniqueness should be treasured.
  • Regardless of perceived ability, one can find strengths in each and every child.
  • While it is OK to want to be like others in some ways, never compare one's value as a human being based on any type of difference.
  • The most basic rules to live by include never hurting oneself and never hurting another - whether through words, looks or action.
And for children, some examples include:
  • A young child who is blind can be told while she are learning a new skill "you can pour your milk into a glass in a way that is wonderful and unique - by hooking your finger over the edge to feel when the glass if full".
  • A child who is deaf is told that his diversity in speaking with his hands is fabulous, exciting and beautifully artistic.
  • A baby with cerebral palsy is sung to about the beauty of her arms and legs and brain and soul.
  • A young girl with dark skin is taught from the day she is born that there are many definitions of beauty. Her beauty does not detract from another's and vice versa.
  • A child who uses a technical device in order to communicate is celebrated as he also helps other children learn to "speak" in a different way.
  • A classroom of children is told daily that although they are alike in many ways, each of them brings something that others do not bring - and each is of equal importance.
  • A television program for children portrays that each child's unique capacities are fundamental and necessary to solve given problems -- and the show includes children with a variety of disabilities and those without.
  • A child who is poor is told about the traditions of "wealth" in his family heritage - their honesty, creativity, closeness to and respect of the earth.
  • A child from a minority group reads stories about the heroines and heroes in her ancestry - whose pride in their identity did not stop them from opening their home and hearts to help those in need from other minority or majority groups.
  • A girl is born and her birth is celebrated. On a daily basis she is told how much she is wanted, valued and loved - simply because she is.
We could practice the same with regard to human and cultural diversity on a national and global level. If we are exporting media to other countries, we can choose the "higher ground"and not present ours as best. If we are importing media from other countries, we can refuse to allow our children to be exposed to messages that denigrate or discriminate against anyone. And we can produce our own, even low cost media that celebrates the diversity and value within and outside our own boundaries.

New Book from the Maldives
Recently on an assignment with the UNICEF-Maldives Office, we developed a book called "Maldivian Babies". It is primarily a picture book for infants, young children and their families - with the goal of all types of babies from around the country able to see and celebrate themselves. There is a layout of healthy babiesthat are not only chubby but run the range in size, shape and ability. There are pages of beautiful babiesthat include those that are dark and light skinned, as well as a babies who are premature and young children who are disabled. There are exploring babies, some who prefer to explore quietly and with the security of a nearby adult. Others explore as far away and as independent as they can be. Each and every layout includes at least an equal number of girls and boys as well as children with disabilities.

photograph of diverse Maldivian babies

Welcome Diversity
The essay I mentioned before "Welcome to Holland"ends with a lesson about celebrating difference. The mother reminds us that "if you are too busy complaining (or comparing - author's addition) about the fact that you didn't get to go to Italy, you'll never be available to enjoy the very special things about Holland".

It all begins with accepting who we are and extending this gift to every human. Our uniqueness and diversity is evident each time an infant is born. We marvel at how could it be possible that no two babies look exactly alike - yes, even twins. Somewhere down the road, societal and cultural norms together with the media, pull us to try to be more alike than different. And then we tend to view difference and diversity as having less value. There is an old tale about a man named Rabbi Zusya who said "In the coming world, they will not ask me, 'Why were you not Moses?' They will ask me, 'Why were you not Zusya?'"

Perhaps, if we help each child - girl/boy, disabled/not, poor/rich, from North/South/East/West, from any culture or religion - to celebrate who they are . . . perhaps these children will grow up just wanting to be themselves. And encouraging others to do the same.

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