Providence Place 2014 Graduation Speech

I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the 2014 graduation for the Providence Place Center For Higher Independence. The Center for Higher Independence is a program that helps young adults with disabilities gain the work, life, and social skills to live independently.

It’s a wonderful program, and I was honored to share this speech to encourage the graduates. I hope it encourages you as well!

As a kid, I used to watch an old Disney movie called The Black Cauldron. It was this great story of adventure — a group of heroes set out to defeat an evil king who is using a magical black cauldron to terrorize the land.

The group of heroes has all the characters you would expect — a brave farmboy, a beautiful princess. And there was also one character you wouldn’t expect, named Gurgi. Gurgi is a fuzzy ewok-like creature who is bumbling and awkward. He lives alone in the woods, and joins the party of heroes basically by accident. For most of the movie, it doesn’t seem like Gurgi is good for much.

But at the movie’s conclusion, Gurgi shows his true colors. The heroes learn that in order to stop the evil king’s power and save the land, someone must sacrifice themselves by jumping in the black cauldron. And Gurgi, because of his great love for his companions, is the one who steps forward and gives up his life to save his friends and his land. The fuzzy outcast, who didn’t seem good for anything, ended up being the hero who saved everyone.

Of course, because The Black Cauldron was a kids movie, everything ends happily. Gurgi is brought back to life, everyone celebrates, the movie ends. But even after the credits rolled, I remember thinking about that movie for a long time. And I remember thinking that I was Gurgi.

See, when I was a kid, I was the most awkward person you could ever hope to meet. I would flap my arms in public when I got excited. I was completely incapable of having natural flowing conversation — instead, I would just talk about star wars for an hour straight in a monotone voice. And despite my best efforts at friendliness, kids treated me with indifference at best and outright hostility at worst.

Later in life I would learn my social struggles were the result of something called Asperger’s syndrome, but as a child all I knew is that I couldn’t fit in no matter what I did. Gurgi and I were basically identical — I didn’t live in the woods like him, but I was just as awkward and bumbling, and I felt just as alone.

Unless I miss my guess, many of you in the audience have felt that way too. Maybe like me, you’ve struggled to understand how to pick up on social cues and interact appropriately. Maybe you’ve been excluded because you communicate with your hands instead of with your mouth, or because you use a wheelchair, or because your brain just works differently than others. No matter why it happens, being excluded is one of the worst feelings in the world.

But here’s the thing. In my life, I’ve found that the people who are most frequently excluded are usually the people who have the most to give. I’ve found that my truest friends are often people who others have rejected.

I’ll tell you a story. My freshman year of high school, I didn’t have any friends. Because I didn’t have any friends, I sat alone during lunch and, as soon as I finished eating, I would go to my next class, because waiting outside the classroom door seemed better than waiting in the cafeteria watching everyone else socialize.

But a funny thing happened. There was this other kid that also waited outside the door of the class during lunch. And pretty soon I started talking to him, and I found that he also had no friends. So we started hanging out,, and over a decade later, he is still one of my best friends. Even though we had both been rejected by the rest of the school, we both had this capacity to be an awesome friend; it was just that nobody had given us the chance until we met each other.

And I think the same capacity to be an incredible friend, or to be incredible in general, is present in each one of the graduates here today. I think that even just in your time at Providence Place, you’ve discovered incredible things about yourself. You’ve discovered that you could master valuable skills, and hold down a great job.. You discovered that you could be a good friend to others, and maybe that you could be someone’s best friend. Ultimately, you discovered that you have so much to give; that through your compassion and your creativity and your hard work, you could make a difference in the world.

And I want to remind you that it doesn’t matter what other people say. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been rejected or excluded by others. It doesn’t even matter if it’s hard for you to accept yourself sometimes. What matters is that you are full to the brim with creativity and courage and potential, and you were created to change the world and nothing that anybody could say could ever change that. And yes, I did mean it when I said you’re going to change the world because even if you never become the president of the United States or the winner of a Nobel Prize, every time you reach out with compassion, every time you inspire others to believe in themselves, every time you choose love, you have just changed the world for the better.

You might be a little surprised to hear me say this, because sometimes when people say words like “disabled” they mean “disqualified.” Like if you have a disability, suddenly you’re not good for anything but taking up space. And I hope that none of you believe that about yourselves, but I know that sometimes when you hear a lie often enough it sinks in

So right now I want to tell you the truth, and if you don’t get anything else from my speech, I want you to get this. The truth is, the world has enough people that can walk or hear or pick up on social cues.. The world needs more people who can love.

Or as Mr. Rogers put it:

“The problem with the word ‘disabilities’ is that it immediately suggests an inability to see or hear or walk or do other things that many of us take for granted. But what about people who can’t feel? Or talk about their feelings? Or manage their feelings in constructive ways? What of people who aren’t able to form close and strong relationships? Or people who cannot find fulfillment in their lives, or those who have lost hope, who live in disappointment and bitterness and find in life no joy, no love? These, it seems to me, are the real disabilities.”

Honestly, I feel as though my Asperger’s was a gift, not a disability. Don’t get me wrong — Asperger’s brought me tremendous suffering. But that suffering brought me tremendous compassion. I learned how to look for other Gurgis — other people that were on the outskirts — and build community with them. I learned to avoid placing value on someone because they were popular or neurotypical or able-bodied, and I learned instead to celebrate qualities like courage and creativity and compassion.
And I see those qualities in you, graduates. I see in you the courage to overcome the challenges of whatever your diagnosis is. I see in you the creativity to imagine a life for yourself that might be different from the “average” person but that is no less beautiful or meaningful. And I see in you the compassion to reach out to the people with true disabilities — people who have forgotten how to feel, people who have forgotten how to hope, people who have forgotten what it means to have someone who loves them.

Graduates, you are alive for a reason. You are alive because the world needs you. Make your lives count.