TOLERANCE IS A GOOD THING

On September 11, 2001 I was employed by a Fortune 500 company to lead and manage the mid-Atlantic region sales office for our firm.  This office was located on the 78th floor of Tower One of the World Trade Center.  At 8:45 AM I was in my office preparing to conduct a training seminar when our building was attacked by terrorists.  I escaped along with many thousands of other people while 3000 others perished in the collapse of the towers.

Within a day the news media heard about my particular story and the clamor for interviews began.  Although my escape from the terrorist attacks was not really any different than any story told that day, first the media than others became intrigued about my story.  The difference between me and most anyone else who was in the World Trade Center that day is that I happen to be totally blind and use a guide dog.  Most people think that it is incredible that a blind person could even be in the World Trade Center much less escape from it on 9/11.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks I began receiving invitations to travel and tell my story.  What I soon realized was that people were looking for something positive to take away from what happened that day.  I also discovered that people were looking for lessons they could use in their lives – lessons from someone who survived the most horrific attack ever to be perpetrated on Americans or anyone else in the world for that matter.  Of course, I know that people were intrigued about a blind person being in the World Trade Center.  It didn’t hurt that I always travel with a cute dog who batted her lashes and hammed it up whenever she could.

Since 9/11 I have traveled throughout the world speaking and telling my story as well as helping people to move on after the attacks and sometimes after unexpected changes in their own lives.  Among my travels I have had the pleasure and joy to visit many colleges and universities, high schools, and even some elementary schools.  I still am not sure who is gained more from these visits – me or the students and faculties who have heard me speak.  Either way, I think the most important take away I have imparted and continue to address is Tolerance and Inclusion.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 occurred in part because our government did not take the time to understand or truly address the issues of people who live a different lifestyle than we.  Before 9/11 few of us knew anything about Al Qaeda, the Muslim lifestyle, or the issues faced by most people in the Middle East.  Oh yes, some of us remember the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980.  Some of us also remember the Israeli wars with its neighbors.  Even so, we did not spend much time understanding the people.

Likewise in this country, we do not spend enough time understanding our own citizens who may be different than we.  For example, no matter how much I have talked about 9/11 and my story, no matter the fact that I have published a book, “Thunder Dog”, which has become a number one New York Times bestseller, and no matter how much I and others worked to educate people about the fact that we who have so-called physical disabilities can live as meaning and productive a lifestyle as anyone else I am still asked the question “what were you doing in the World Trade Center?”.  This morning, September 11, 2012, during a nationally syndicated radio interview about “Thunder Dog” and my story the reporter expressed amazement that I could be in the World Trade Center because I was a blind person.  I explained that in reality the true “handicap” that I face is not blindness, but rather it consists of the misconceptions and lack of education that people have about blindness.

Whether a person is blind, uses a wheelchair, is deaf or hard of hearing, is of a different race than we, or has some other difference that stands out to us I think it is important that we learn to be more tolerant and find ways to work together.  On this day which has come to represent one of the most traumatic times in our history let us take a step back from the divisive political campaigns depicted by the media and encouraged by the politicians, let us take a few moments to think about and better understand those who may be different than us, and let us work together to revitalize our national spirit of unity for all people in this country so that we can be a true positive example for the rest of the world.

Question: what do you do and how do you feel when you encounter someone with a physical disability?  What assumptions do you make which may or may not be true?  I would love to read your answers.  Please comment and leave your thoughts.

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