This piece was originally published in the Virginian Pilot opinion section on October 16, 2021.
October is National Arts and Humanities Month (NAHM). Established by Americans for the Arts more than thirty years ago, NAHM is a time to reflect on what it is that makes our culture unique, and it has me thinking about what it means to be a valued and accepted member of our society and how important it is to acknowledge and celebrate our differences in order to create a society that is inclusive in the truest sense.
I have long understood the importance of diversity in culture and in other areas of life. For twenty-five years, I served on the board of the Chesapeake Bay Academy (CBA), an independent school for K-12 students with learning differences. Acknowledging their differences and addressing their individual needs, while also giving them necessary tools and validation, has helped many students complete school who might otherwise have struggled to succeed. Schools like CBA help keep neurodiverse people from falling through the cracks.
Diversity is often the key to helping organizations and institutions succeed. And the same is true when it comes to neurodiversity. Consider famous thinkers like Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, and Nelson Rockefeller. All of them were said to have had learning difficulties, but later went on to become great leaders in their fields. It’s tempting to think that these men fought to overcome their learning differences, but maybe those differences were the source of their ability to think and see the world differently. Maybe if society had succeeded in minimizing their differences and erased what made them unique, we all would have lost something.
Neurodiverse students have brains that are different from neurotypical students, and historically this difference has been treated as a deficit. As a result, neurodiverse people often find it difficult to find jobs. In 2017, the Harvard Business Review reported that when businesses change their HR process so that neurodiverse people can make it through the hiring processes more easily, those companies quickly see improvements in productivity, innovation, and employee engagement. In short, companies benefit from neurodiversity. Similar findings have been made about cultural and racial diversity. When groups are diversified, schools, businesses, and judicial systems all perform better than when they are culturally and racially homogenous.
The humanities, through art, literature, philosophy, history, and storytelling, are the key to understanding the nuance and complexity that exists in diverse groups of people. They provide a way for us to vicariously experience the lives of others, stepping out of our comfort zones to find out what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. The humanities foster the empathy and understanding necessary to build an inclusive society.
During National Arts and Humanities Month, I encourage you to step out of your own comfort zone and learn something about the experiences of someone unlike yourself. A good place to start is by getting to know our state’s humanities council, Virginia Humanities (VirginiaHumanities.org). To learn about neurodiversity, I encourage you to visit NeuroDiversityHub.org.
The adage that the mind once opened to a new idea never comes back to its original size, is apt here. Likewise, a society once opened to diversity and inclusivity in all its forms will never return to the way it was before.
Dee Lester served as a founding board member of the Chesapeake Bay School Academy (CBA) for more than 25 years. Having spent her professional life as a CPA for McPhillips Roberts and Dean (now BDO), Lester brought expertise to her roles as Treasurer, Vice Chair, and eventually a five-year tenure as Board Chair during her time at CBA. Dee Lester is currently a member of Virginia Humanities’ board of directors.
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