My coworkers at the Disability Rights Center asked me to share the essay I wrote for my diversity statement for my law school, and since then I’ve been thinking a lot about diversity. It’s a term that’s being thrown around a lot these days and with good reason. But while I hear a lot of “we need to be more diverse”—whether it’s in education or employment or the arts—I don’t hear a lot of why.
What I liked about the chance to write a diversity statement was that it captured the point of diversity, the essence of its value to society. It didn’t just ask if I belong to a marginalized group. It asked how belonging to a marginalized group affected my experiences and perspectives. That, to me, is what diversity is all about. It isn’t just a number or a label. I am a person who is blind, yes, but that doesn’t in itself make me diverse. Because I am blind, I have experienced my whole life differently even than someone with sight who did the exact same things I did. It is these different experiences and challenges that I have had to overcome that give me a unique perspective to add to any conversation. That, to me, is why diversity is important: it aims to add all voices to a conversation, thus enriching that conversation with the fullness of the human experience.
To that end, I wrote my own diversity statement about my experiences in my high school marching band: my feelings of exclusion, my struggle for reasonable accommodations, and finally success not only for myself, but also for the band and the community at large.
So without further ado, here it is:
Playing my clarinet in the school band was the first time I felt fully included in an activity with my sighted peers. But when I entered high school, the band started formation marching in the halftime shows at the football games, and our band director simply could not see a way for me to participate. I was forced to stand and play on the sidelines, conspicuously out-of-place as the rest of the band marched behind me. I no longer felt like I fit in. In fact, I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb, standing by myself and playing my part isolated from my section. By the end of my sophomore year, I had had enough. I did some research about other blind people in marching bands, formulated a plan, and presented it to the music department. They said I could try it if I found someone to help me.
So I approached my best friend, Amy, and asked if she would guide me for the halftime shows. She agreed, and after a lot of tripping over each other’s feet and several collisions with the sousaphone section, we learned to move across that football field as if we were one person. Amy stood behind me and kept her hands on my shoulders. She was like my shadow, guiding me to each exact position on the field as I played, but we moved together: Backwards march. On beat five, start playing “Eleanor Rigby”. Float sixteen. Hold twelve and dance. I was part of the band again.
The local news came to the championship to film the marching band with the “blind girl,” and when they said, “Where’s the blind girl?” we knew we’d done it. Amy and I changed the marching band together. And the marching band, Amy, and I changed the community and its perceptions.
During the summer, I joined a team of blind and sighted teenagers, and we hiked in the Andes in Peru and whitewater rafted the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon with Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to climb Everest. Erik told us that when we work together, we all learn from each other, and at every step on those trips, we did. The blind members of our team were able to tackle and surmount an extraordinary physical challenge. At the same time, the sighted teens saw us climb those mountains and succeed. As we realized we could participate in sighted society, they realized they wanted us to participate—we were in fact great people just as capable and normal as they were, even if we had to approach challenges in different ways. Capable and successful people with disabilities break down barriers, change perceptions, and enhance communities.
And so it was with the marching band. I was not only able to march, but I showed the band, the school, and the community I could, and by extension, anyone can, given the opportunity. With our will and courage and music in our ears, Amy and I “stepped off,” together, “me and my shadow”.