Montel Medley was one of my favorite students. He was a typical teenager—he enjoyed spending time with friends, was a member of the National Honor Society, and he was great at math. As a matter of fact, he was great at math—it was one of his favorite subjects. But, Montel was “different”—he was diagnosed with autism at the age of three. He was one of the first students I taught that was on the autism spectrum.
I learned so much from Montel and his mother. I learned that Montel didn’t want to be defined by his diagnosis; he mentioned it only as a matter of fact, but did not want to be bound by any perceived limitations of his disability. He proved naysayers wrong every day, by excelling and defying the odds. In 2014, Montel was the valedictorian of his high school class, and earned a scholarship to Towson University.
I thought about Montel earlier this week as my current school recognized Disability Awareness Month which is celebrated in the month of March. Since 1987, March has been designated National Disabilities Awareness Month. The proclamation, first signed by President Ronald Reagan, called for people to provide understanding, encouragement and opportunities to help persons with disabilities to lead productive and fulfilling lives. He is a testament to what children with disabilities can achieve. His story is also a reminder to non-disabled people to allow their disabled peers the opportunity to engage in all aspects of life—school, work, recreation, etc.
To achieve equity, we must be fully inclusive. This means moving beyond the basic formality of inclusiveness or toleration. Ensuring we think about whether disabled people are included in affinity groups, have appropriate accommodations, and are involved in every level of decision-making processes within organizations. Ensuring the voice of disabled peers is heard is a valuable piece of the diversity, equity, and inclusion puzzle. And it is one that is often overlooked.
This month, I encourage all individuals, agencies, and organizations supportive of people with disabilities are encouraged to observe the month of March with appropriate observances and activities directed toward increasing public awareness of the contributions and the potential of Americans with disabilities. Like Montel Medley once said, “Having a disability doesn’t mean you have a disadvantage, sometimes it can be an advantage.” I have come to believe this is correct.