I had the pleasure of watching the Academy-Award winning “The Pursuit of Happyness” tonight. If you’ve never seen it, it is about a hard-working man determined to make a better life for himself and his son. It’s about opportunity, yes, but it is also about the hard work required to make the most of our opportunities. Hard work pays off with success. The main character, Chris, struggles to get an internship at a local investment firm and competes with 20 other interns for a shot at a full-time brokerage position. He works hard and after weeks of spending nights in homeless shelters and subway bathrooms with his son, he earns a job as a broker and later sells his own brokerage firm for millions.
What the movie reminded me of is the promise of America. The promise that if you work hard enough, you can achieve whatever you set your mind to-a higher degree, a promotion, a vacation home, a family, whatever it may be, its all determined by your willingness to work for it. But part of getting there is having the educational wherewithal to recognize that everyone deserves opportunity to show society what they can contribute, whether its a talent, service, a product, their time or even prayer-all of us have something unique to contribute regardless of our race, class, abilities or whatever other trait of difference we might possess. Sadly, there is a lot of ignorance in the world-Chris experiences this in his quest for the broker position.
Aside from the economic conditions, a lot of people face discrimination every day beccause of their race, gender, sexuality, disability, or other difference. Employers often don’t look at people’s talents or abilities, but rather people’s appearances or differences. Sadly, this often leads employers to miss out on a wealth of talent. I have had my share of experiences too. Yes, they can be disheartening, but I believe they are signs from God saying he has another position or vocation in store for me, and perhaps it is to educate students and employers about the abilities of all kinds of different people. The fact is everyone is different in some way. Some have visible “disabilities,” some may be dyslexic or have ADD. Some may be a racial minority facing discrimination from bigots. The beauty of all of our differences is that they are what make each of us unique. They are what makes the world so full of wonder!
I am thinking of how I can help educate others and defend people’s rights to contribute to society. Perhaps one way is as a lawyer. I will figure it out in due time. In the meantime, I have written a column about these issues which I have posted below. I sent it to some newspapers, but I never heard back, so I have posted it here. I’ll keep you guys posted-I am thinking of how to maybe start a resource center of some sort to educate people about the importance of valuing diversity, and how to let people know that the promise of America, that all men are created equal, endowed with the right to go in the pursuit of happyness.
America’s people have made remarkable progress in learning to accept differences among themselves. America is the only country founded on the premise that “all men are created equal” and Americans embrace many unique cultures, making us the envy of the world. Over the last five decades, numerous laws have been enacted to advance the cause of civil rights for all. However, perception is very different from reality.
Growing up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a town known for its prestigious institutions of higher education and progressive atmosphere, I learned the value of embracing diversity. I myself represent a diverse population-I have Cerebral Palsy, which affects my speech, hearing and fine motor skills. Nonetheless, because of the excellent schools in my area, and as well as the hard work of statesmen and disability rights advocates like former Senator Bob Dole and the late Senator Edward Kennedy, I received a top-notch education just like every other child. Of course, growing up does not come without bumps in the road-I was the target of the occasional bully, but those incidents simply test our ability to remain strong in the face of ignorance.
In 2005, I went off to college at a small private university in Washington, DC. During this time, I was blessed with the opportunity to intern both on Capitol Hill and with advocacy and media organizations, including the office of former Senator Elizabeth Dole. I was given those opportunities based on my ability to contribute to those organizations, and never felt discriminated against because of my “disability.” In fact, most were so wildly impressed with my ability to effectively advance a cause through written word that I had to turn down offers for internships.
After two years in Washington, I decided to transfer to the University of North Carolina to major in public health. As a Tar Heel, I served as a member of the Daily Tar Heel editorial board and was on the men’s crew team.
I received my degree in May, 2009. I finally had a piece of paper that proved my ability. Unfortunately, the assumption that having a degree would largely eliminate misconceptions about my ability to contribute to the workplace has sometimes proved to be unfounded. Economic troubles aside, during the past year I have experienced discrimination by potential employers, including one local firm that refused to hire me because of my speech impediment, which they thought would hinder my ability to communicate with clients, the majority of which are medical practices, despite having no difficulty understanding me during the interview. However, they assured me that they would keep me in mind for jobs that required mostly computer work. I was told I had a great skill set, but rather than giving me the chance to show them my capabilities, I was told I wasn’t fit to interact with clients. My resume did not matter-my speech impediment did. After growing up in a community that preached tolerance, I was disappointed to find that some of the very people who preach tolerance and understanding are not willing to look past some things, such as a disability.
Other prospective employers would call to offer me an interview, only to say “we just wanted to thank you for applying” after hearing my speech impediment, which some incorrectly associate with cognitive impairment. I may wear hearing aids, but I am no fool-employers do not call job applicants simply to thank them for applying.
The irony is that I have successfully interacted with medical professionals and their staff my entire life, both out of medical necessity and out of a desire to give back to a community from which I have received much. As a middle and high school student, I led efforts to raise money for TelAbility, a telemedicine program at the North Carolina Children’s Hospital. As a public health student, I served as an intern for the American College of Preventive Medicine, where I met with members of Congress in an effort to build support for the “Preventive Medicine and Public Health Training Act,” which is now being reviewed by committees in both houses of Congress. In short, my Cerebral Palsy does not have any bearing on my ability to be a productive member of the workforce and society as a whole, nor does it hinder my ability to communicate with professionals, business clients or members of Congress, for that matter.
What I have learned is that our courts and legislatures can write laws and administer justice all day long. Laws are pointless in the absence of an educated public. My experiences have had a positive effect, however, inasmuch as they have inspired me to apply to law school in hopes of being an advocate and policymaker so that others might not face discrimination in the future.
Minorities, especially the disabled community, face discrimination in all areas, including employment, romance, and the state budget-making process. People stare. Individuals make false or hurtful assumptions, or use people with disabilities as the butt of jokes, as Family Guy recently did in a distasteful attempt to poke fun at a polarizing political figure. While we cannot change the past, we can change the future. While understanding my speech may require a little extra effort for some, those who take the time to listen to me or get educated about other people with all sorts of disabilities will learn that despite a speech impediment, or impaired physical or cognitive ability, we are capable of contributing great things to the workplace and to society. So take the time. Look beyond first impressions, and get educated!