For the past six years of my life I have lived by those words. There is nothing more beautiful than the truth, and the truth is, if we want to see change, then we must work to be the change we wish to see. This quote reaches me at a personal level, having become the base for what I consider my motivation for all that I do. For the past six years I have volunteered working with children with autism. My volunteering has ranged from summer camps to dances, and even annual walks, all for the cause of wanting to see change. I believe that the harder we work toward understanding and raising awareness, the better our chances of changing the way society as a whole views us. I refer to the autistic community as ‘us’ because I feel that that’s what we are. We are not just individuals, advocates, and families, but rather one family comprised of many, supporting one another and working toward a better future.
My younger brother and sister were diagnosed with autism at a young age, leaving my mother to wonder where to turn for support. When she found the Center they became an extended family, offering many new friendships, and opportunities for the support we had been looking for. It wasn’t long before I had become an advocate for the subject myself. Growing up, I had been taught not to judge other people; because of this I was able to see past their disabilities more easily, getting to know individuals for who they really were. What I saw was a collection of intelligent and creative people with a range of different outlooks on life. I have often heard that we must be the voice for those who have none and wish to be heard; I’d never heard a silence quite as loud, or quite as beautiful as the voice that they all shared. It was all I needed to motivate me to take action and begin the change I wanted to see.
I wanted the world around me to see what I saw. I wanted them to understand what I understood. For so long I had grown up around other kids that had mocked others with disabilities. It was my belief that they only did so because they didn’t understand them. I sought to enlighten them on the subject. For one, I grew tired of hearing people use the word “retarded” to describe any mentally disabled human being, or using it as a synonym for being stupid. The word is still being misused and given negative connotations, when in reality, I have yet to come into contact with anyone considered retarded, who has not in fact been smart. When I realized that the word was being used in a hurtful manner towards people I cared about, I set out to end the use of the word to describe anything but its initial intent.
I started with changing how I talked to my friends. I myself stopped using the word, and upon hearing it from one of my friends, would inform them about the meaning of the word. I told them that I did not appreciate the use of the word to describe stupidity, nor anything short of its true meaning. Eventually my friends began to implement other words in place of using retarded. Slowly I watched the change take place. Whenever I heard the word being used out of context I would kindly inform the speaker of my point of view. There were times that I was met with more mockery than success, but I realized that those moments were obstacles that I had to overcome. I was supportive of my school’s attempts at a “spread the word to end the word” campaign. I felt that it was a step in the right direction towards a positive change, but in order for it to take effect, we as students had to make an effort to work towards that change individually. Even now, every day I seek to change the way people see others with disabilities, and how they use certain, perhaps hurtful words to describe them.
As an individual, I sought to be the change I wanted to see; I seek to be the change I want to see. I wish to see an environment free from judgmental ignorance that may one day be more kind to people like my brother and sister, and the other families we have bonded with. In order to see that wish come true I have to do my part in making it a reality by working towards that goal. Sometimes we have to be the voice for those that cannot speak, and even then we may still have to fight to be heard. Though we may encounter many obstacles on our journey, they are not reason enough to give up altogether. I’ve heard the best things in life are worth fighting for, and for the sake of hearing the beautiful voice of a silenced community, I will fight to be heard. I will see a world where being disabled carries no negative labels, where no word should be used to harm those that can’t understand. Even if I only succeed in changing the minds of a few, I will have made a difference to many. I will be the change that I want to see in the world.
Author Ashley Taylor has been a part of our extended family at the Autism Resource Center of Central MA, a program of HMEA, for many years. She now attends college. For more information about autism or the Center, please visit http://www.autismresourcecentral.org