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As part of my Social Justice 12 class, I have students present their research on a topic of interest to them. These reports always inspire lively and insightful discussions. A subject that seems to consistently draw a great deal of interest is the Nazi genocide of the handicapped.
The Nazis determined that many people were not worthy of life and that it cost the state too much money to take care of them. So under the cover of the Second World War, they killed 200,o00 people with disabilities, primarily by gas, lethal injection or starvation.
This impacted many German families. They objected to the Nazis killing their spouses, children, cousins, parents, aunts and uncles.
It proved to be a public relations nightmare for the Nazis and they officially relented. But the murders continued in secret.
After presenting their research, my students ask their classmates what humanity has learned and how we’ve changed. Do we value all people in our society and do we treat everyone as an equal?
While we have certainly gotten better, we continue to discriminate.
I looked up at a wall in my class during a recent discussion and saw a message I put up to remind myself of my mission as an educator. “Help each student to achieve their individual greatness,” it says. This brought me to an important realization: it’s impossible to distinguish between a person who is ‘acceptable’ and one who is not. It also challenged me.
As a public school educator, it’s my job to give my very best to every person who enters my classroom. I’m thankful that no distinction is made with regard to financial means of the parents, race or religion. Every person is gifted, even if the gifts are not yet obvious.
We’ve made significant progress as a school system and a society to bring about the integration of students of all abilities. Embracing the challenge of integration has made me a better teacher and, as always, I learn a great deal from my students.
But are we doing enough?
Time and again it’s been demonstrated that people who were once deemed hopeless and unreachable, when they’re loved, encouraged and helped in drawing out their individual greatness, do amazing things. Why would we ever doubt that everyone, regardless of external appearances, has something tremendous to offer?
How foolish the Nazis were for trying to place a dollar value on human potential.
Yes, some people need more support, but how dare we say that they’re not worth the investment?
There are no distinctions between humans that make us any more or any less worthy of love and respect. All efforts to discriminate, by IQ level, ethnicity, skin colour and so on, are at best ridiculous and at worst horribly cruel.
Former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, when visiting and UNICEF camp in Gabon in 2010, said, “A society is judged by its treatment of its weakest and most vulnerable members.”
What more can we do as a country to support our vulnerable children and adults?
We need to be aware that this is not charity, we’re simply doing what’s right. How many geniuses were once categorized unteachable? How many great artists were judged as crazy? How many kind and wonderful people find it difficult to live on their own? How many people once struggling with addictions are now helping to heal those who continue to suffer?
We’re all imperfect and we are all tremendous. If we learn anything from history, it’s that we’re all better when we walk this world together.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.
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