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An Act of Courage

November 30, 2013

We all admire courage. Bravery is considered one of the finest qualities an individual can possess. That is why we honor those who demonstrate courage with medals and awards. We put them on a pedestal and look up to them. We emulate them and wonder if we could have the same level of fearlessness that they display. Our society makes heroes out of those who exhibit this important quality. We are drawn to it, and we seek it out from the everyday experience. Being courageous is an honorable thing.

Of course there are many kinds of courage. Sometimes it is expected from certain people because of their line of work. Police officers, fire fighters, those in the military and medical personnel are often called upon to take heroic actions. It is what they do, and our society would be far less safe without their selfless contributions. We have come to admire courage in athletes. We watch with awe as an individual fights through a painful injury and keeps playing. We admire those who are willing to take risks we would never even consider. Whether it is driving a car 200 mph or hurtling down a snow packed mountain, we are captivated by those who risk their bodies and their lives in an effort to do what seems impossible.

Because it comes in many forms, courage can be spectacular or silent. It can be viewed by the entire world or it can happen completely out of sight. It can be displayed by one person or an entire nation. In the past there have been brave citizens who have stood up for causes that truly changed society in a meaningful way. Individual acts of courage can often be the catalyst to a movement that improves the lives of millions. These people have demonstrated one of the most important and rarest forms of courage, and that is the courage to care. Caring requires effort and sacrifice. It forces us to take action. It does not allow us to be lazy, selfish or apathetic. It demands that we stop fixating on our petty problems and acknowledge the needs of others. We often have to step away from the crowd and be willing to be in the minority. It requires us to be our best.

That is the kind of courage shown by individuals with intellectual challenges and their families.

Put yourself in this person’s place.

53 years ago your son was born with a developmental disability. Doctors said your baby would be a burden to you for the rest of your life, and they urged you to place your son in an institution to spare you the expense, pain and humiliation of having what the medical profession referred to as a less than “perfect” child in your family. You refused.

Because of his disability, your son endured a long series of painful and life threatening medical procedures as he was growing up. You lived with the constant fear of losing him, but you knew you had no choice but to go through with the surgeries so that he could have the highest quality of life possible.

Your child struggled in school and quickly became a target for cruel bullying that threatened to destroy his self-esteem. The teachers and administration seemed powerless to stop it, but you refused to let your son be a victim because of the ignorance of others, so you became his advocate and stood up for his right to be treated as an equal human being.

Your son finished school and suddenly faced a 70% unemployment rate for individuals with developmental disabilities. Employers would not even consider hiring him for fear that their customers would not feel comfortable around him or that it would be cost prohibitive to make adaptions in the work environment to accommodate him. But your son refused to give up his dream of having a job and together you searched until you found an employer who accepted him for who he was. Your child was hired, and his life immediately changed for the better.

That is the courage of real life. In this example, difficult decisions had to be made and in each case the person did what they believed was right no matter what others thought.

Unfortunately, it is easy to miss the courageous efforts that people with intellectual challenges and their families display every day. Their willingness to make sacrifices, their ability to harness the strength of the human spirit to conquer their fears and their persistence in searching for true acceptance are all powerful forms of courage. For people with developmental disabilities, courage means facing a society that sometimes judges you because you look or sound different. It means attempting to live a full and rewarding life, the way you choose, even though there are those around you who can be insensitive or intolerant. For people with intellectual challenges, things that others might take for granted can require great courage.


The following are just a few of the ways that courage is displayed by men and women with developmental disabilities every day.

Listening to people tell you what you will never be able to do, and believing they are wrong is an act of courage.

Having the willingness to forgive those, who through their ignorance, refuse to accept you as an equal is an act of courage.

Refusing to focus on the things you can’t do, and instead concentrating on what you can accomplish is an act of courage.

Standing up for yourself when no one else will is an act of courage.

Facing each day with a positive attitude even though you live with serious medical conditions that anyone would find discouraging is an act of courage.

Refusing to judge others because you personally know how painful judgment can be is an act of courage.

Attempting new challenges that test you physically and mentally, and not being afraid to fail, is an act of courage.

Treating others with the respect and dignity you know they deserve, even if it is not returned, is an act of courage.

Having faith in the basic goodness of human beings and trusting that they will someday accept you as a person instead of reducing you to a diagnosis is an act of courage.

Accepting who you are and knowing that the world is a better place because you are a part of it is an act of courage.


Obviously courage is something we all need from time to time, but for people with intellectual challenges and their families it is a daily fact of life. To endure decades of tests, evaluations, plans, programs and medical procedures is not easy. They are forced to live with situations and conditions that most of us will never encounter. We only have to pay attention and be aware of their efforts and sacrifices to see that their lives are an unending series of courageous acts. Instead of judging them for what they cannot do, we should appreciate their perseverance and determination to live their lives to the fullest under what are often incredibly difficult circumstances.

The next time you witness an act of courage, stop and think about those who have to brave every day of their lives because they have no choice.

Would you or I have the courage to face the challenges endured by people with developmental disabilities?