Presence Does Make a Difference

I often field questions about diversity and inclusion - especially ones like, "Well, why does it matter if a person of color is in my class?" or "What difference does it make if I have a Black professor?" or "Since I treat all people the same, why should it be important that my kids have a diverse group of friends?" I believe that the presence of people with diverse backgrounds, needs, abilities, etc., changes the conversation and ways we do things simply by their presence. In an exercise I do in workshops, I ask participants to move around a room and talk to a different person every 30 seconds or so.  It requires an ability to physically move quickly AND an ability to filter sounds easily (the room gets quite noisy). Those are just the surface needs. The exercise also requires people to be somewhat extroverted, comfortable with asking un-comfortable questions, and comfortable with answering un-comfortable questions.

The exercise ends without a hitch - usually everyone is feeding off the energy of moving around quickly and trying to get points (you receive points my talking to many people). After asking typical process questions like, "What was this like for you?" or "What was something interesting you learned about another person in the room?", I then follow up with these types of questions:

  • "Is there anyone was physically challenged by this exercise?"
  • "Is there anyone for whom hearing was a challenge in this type of room?"

I typically am working in a room of able-bodied participants; and I tend to co-host this workshop with a friend of mine who uses hearing aids. She often shares how this exercise would have been extremely difficult for her to filter out individual voices in such a noisy room. I then share that, due to chemotherapy, my own daughter would have difficult with this exercise since she cannot filter voices well in a loud room. This type of exercise -- given that you earn points for moving around quickly -- would also prove unfair for anyone who might have mobility challenges. By design, this exercise creates advantage.... and ideally, it helps to highlight to others that we tend not to think about that advantage unless we have others in the room who are unfairly disadvantaged because of it.


I am loving this year's American Idol series. While, yes, we do watch it as a family, it particularly hits home for us as a family with a visually impaired child. Scott MacIntyre, a top 12 finalist, is raising our awareness of how we do things.

Millions dream of making it to the final rounds of American Idol but for Scott MacIntyre, the dream has become reality. Born with severe vision loss from Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), Scott is an incredibly gifted musical performer who has made it to the Top 12 on American Idol. With his remarkable talent, Scott is bound to make it far in the competition, and we need you to support him as he shoots his way to the top!

An Arizona State University graduate, a Marshall scholar, and a Fulbright scholar, Scott learned to play the piano at the age of three.  His piano professor, Walter Cosand, said, "He's always been able to do what everyone else could do and many things no one else could do. A lot of things he does are very remarkable, even for someone without a disability."

Scott also has a sister, Katelyn, who has lost her vision to LCA. With their brother Todd, the three siblings have made a splash performing as the MacIntyre Family Singers. Scott even shared his talents with the FFB family when he performed at the opening luncheon of the 1998 VISIONS Conference in Chicago.

Not only do we have a visually impaired child, many of her friends (at least the ones we see over the summer in a special camp) are also visually impaired. So, the language that Ryan Seacrest uses when Scott MacIntyre is on stage is so familiar to us. Ryan Seacrest describes what direction Scott is facing, he details that Scott is receiving a standing ovation, and he uses physical touch (likely already negotiated -- side note: it's considered very rude to just come up to a visually impaired person and touch them; you approach and ask permission prior to touching someone!) to guide him when on stage. It's something the American Idol host has never had to do in the 8 seasons the show has been on the air. While not explicitly drawing attention to Scott's challenge, his very presence raises our awareness of a community that has not gotten exposure in mainstream media.

Yet, it's a learning process. Because we are so used to speaking and working with able-bodied folks, we still slip. So, last night, I cringed as Ryan Seacrest told all of the finalists to "come to the middle of the stage!" at which point everyone came running down the stairs and hugged one another in the center of the stage. And, up in the left hand corner of the screen, there was Scott MacIntyre -- standing still, not moving, and stuck. There were no handrails on the stairs, and Scott was indeed on the top of the risers. After about 20 seconds (which, to me, felt like 20 minutes!), someone came running out from backstage to guide Scott to the center of the stage where he could join his fellow finalists.

Scott's success in American Idol -- and the ways in which his very presence raises our awareness -- is so important to the conversation about how we benefit from having diversity in our lives. It requires us to think about ways in which we assume that "everyone is like us". In the disability circle, specifically, it raises our awareness of ways in which we are blind (my own pun, intended), to the assumptions that everyone does things just like us.

Just like us. Note that I didn't write "the assumptions that everyone can do things", but rather that "everyone does things just like us."  My daughter can jump, run, play sports, sing, walk, participate in just about everything else that any visual child can do ... she just doesn't do it like everyone else. Go check out a "blind baseball game" (there are national leagues that do exist!). Listen to how conversations are built around faith and religion when there are Christians, Jews, and Muslims all in one room as opposed to when those groups are in isolation. Having different types of people and experiences requires us to take into consideration how others engage in the conversation, activity, and process.

So, do I think it matters if someone has a Black professor? Yes. A group of diverse friends/co-workers? Yes. Opportunities to dialogue across faith traditions? Yes. That there is diversity in decision making positions? Yes.

Experiences that require us to work with different types of people bring a new level of awareness to how we navigate through our own world. When we aren't challenged to see things outside of how we do things, we don't suffer. American Idol has been just fine in the past 7 seasons. But, this season - with the inclusion of a very talented and deserving artist - has hopefully highlighted ways in which we take for granted that OUR way is the ONLY way.