Have you ever thought about the first time you ever felt different?

Take a moment and let it sink in. Recalling moments like that is an eye opening experiment when you consider how many people are reminded of their differences every single day.

Someone in a wheelchair trying to navigate an obstructed sidewalk.

A child being gawked at because he doesn’t look or sound the same as his classmates.

At a recent training for the Center for Family Involvement we were asked to discuss the most memorable time we felt truly different. Most of us had never reflected on it. Sharing these moments turned out to be a lesson in empathy.

Irene is hard of hearing. She said that as a child she never felt she was different from her peers, until the 3rd grade. She was in school when the battery died in her hearing aid. That was the moment she recognized she couldn’t hear but her classmates could.

Alisia first realized she was different when she became the parent of a child with special needs. Most other parents she knows have no idea what she’s going through. She said she is tired and overwhelmed but is learning to appreciate the little things.

Another participant shared her experience with agoraphobia. She had to hire a life coach to help her child. It took more than 70 visits to the DMV to help him get his license. But she said she became both a fierce mama bear and more compassionate in the process.

Angela has cerebral palsy. She said her first year in college was the most difficult. That was the first time she ever had to fight to get the accommodations that she needed. Early on she felt lonely. It took her a couple of years to find her groove and make friends.

The exercise forced me to recall the first time in my life I was a minority. I had moved to Southeast Asia. My pale skin and American frame stood out almost everywhere I went. When I visited smaller towns away from the big cities I would attract stares. I felt so uncomfortable. It was unnerving. At times it made me angry.

But it wasn’t until I was forced to think about this that it dawned on me that people with disabilities endure those stares their entire life. My 5-year-old son gets those uncomfortably long looks, as if other parents have never seen a child with Down syndrome before. I watch people as they watch my friends in wheelchairs – they have no problem gawking at them.

As we celebrate disability awareness month, it’s important to recognize we are all different. But more importantly, we are more alike than different.

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