My cousin Austin is only eight days older than I am but because we live 15 hours apart, time spent together is scarce. When we were little we would play together, but as we grew, it seemed that Austin stayed stuck at a younger age. Now 16, I drive a car, go to dances, and spend late nights with friends while Austin remains home watching his favorite show, “Barney.” The difference between us is due to his Down syndrome. I never understood this as a kid, but now I do and Austin has become closer to me, even though we live so far apart.
When Austin goes out in public, people stare and seem to feel uncomfortable. When someone like Austin is around, people think they need to draw a line to separate themselves. Why? Do people think that it will keep them safe? This line should not exist because everyone has something to hide, even if they don’t understand what it is. Sometimes being around Austin helps me realize an inner self I never knew existed. Our differences make us unique, and even if we don’t understand that, it is something we must accept.
For the past six summers, I have worked at a camp for developmentally disabled individuals called Camp Sunshine. Every year the campers look forward to their time there. Some are physically challenged, but that doesn’t stop them from being very active. They play basketball, go swimming, sing and dance, play games, perform in talent shows, and experience a time they will never forget. It is a safe and inclusive place so that they can be themselves. They are each cherished for who they are, and that is the way it should be for everyone, everywhere. Camp Sunshine not only touches the lives of campers, but also those who volunteer to help.
Last summer, I spent time with a camper who was 28 years old. She was in a wheelchair and wore glasses and hearing aids but impacted many people with her optimism. She would watch campers compete and shout encouragement to go faster or farther. Being supportive has always been her speciality; just being around her made me happy. Her performance at the talent show was so beautiful I cried. So, again I ask, how is she different from the rest of us? Does there really need to be a line drawn? Her condition isn’t very different from the “normal” people in this world. Actually, I think that she understands the meaning of love and happiness more than most.
We need to realize that the lines we draw to separate ourselves are not appropriate, and if we spend only a few minutes with each other and our differences, we will discover what gifts are truly given to us. I wonder what it would be like if instead of drawing lines that separate, we drew circles that include and embrace diversity.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.