From the CEO: Disability is Diversity

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Image of a giant "Big Bird" in a pilgrim hat holding a sign that says "I'm glad I'm not a Turkey." He is joined by two fake, plastic dogs, Dart and Ada, that are dressed up for Thanksgiving as well.

Big Bird, Dart, and Ada in the AWSF lobby.

If you have been to the AWS Foundation office this year, you have surely noticed our giant Big Bird in the lobby. Since last November, he has been in the company of Dart and Ada, celebrating each passing holiday. He came to us through the generous contribution of PBSTV 39 after his attendance at the Festival of Trees in 2021.

‘Why Big Bird?’ you may ask.

Who doesn’t love Big Bird’s perspective of the world that he shares on Sesame Street? It is with the innocence of a child that Big Bird questions and, in doing so, teaches. For years we have learned about fairness from him. We have learned about everyone taking a turn and everyone deserving respect. From the first episode in 1969 Sesame Street has tackled challenging topics. They helped children label emotions from fear after 9/11 to grief when Mr. Hooper died. Big Bird showed us, through his relationship with Oscar, to accept people monsters, as they are.

A few years ago, Big Bird introduced us to his cousins from around the world. Each are canary birds, like Big Bird, but have feathers of different colors. In meeting his cousins who were not big and yellow but big and green or pink, he taught all who watched about diversity. His Brazilian cousin, Garibaldo, was deep blue with intense eyebrows and looked so different (some said possessed) that he was frightening to some.

Big Bird is in our lobby to help share his teachings on diversity because we know that disability is diversity.

Darren Walker, CEO of the Ford Foundation, was challenged by many when their 2016 DEI initiative, FordForward, did not include those with disabilities.

In his annual letter that year he wrote of “inequality of all kinds” and “the paradox of privilege.” He went on to confess that despite being a gay black man raised in poverty, the fact that he was able-bodied gave him privilege.

I encourage you to read his essay. His insight and eloquence of self-assessment are humbling to me.

“While checking each other’s ignorance in one area, we may simultaneously and unconsciously reinforce and even ratify it in another. In this way, an absent voice or constituency may not merely be unconsidered; it may as well not exist.”

I try to see the positive in everyone, as I see modeled by Sesame Street’s Elmo. I believe that most would agree that it is better to be a part of a community that is accessible and inclusive to those of all abilities. I believe that it is through genuine inquiry, active listening, and sincere empathy we can identify our areas of blindness in perspective. Inequality is, and will likely always be, pervasive. No two of us are alike and our ignorance can distort how we translate those differences. I understand that the Ford Foundation has made changes that include and impact people with disabilities. Their expanded definition of diversity and inclusion results in having those with a disability on their staff and board. They even encourage grantees to add the cost of accommodations within proposed budgets.

Each of us can increase our understanding of diversity. As Big Bird tells us of his cousin, Garibaldo, “he may look scary, but he is one of the nicest birds I know.”