It was a beautiful summer day, which I had just spent with my best friend and her dad.
If you’ve ever been in Toronto in August, you probably know the “Ex”, aka the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition). The Ex is the beloved portable carnival where we go to drown our back-to-school sorrows on rickety rides, impossible-to-win games, and deep-fried butter. (Yes, it’s a thing.)
We were leaving the grounds feeling as carefree as kids can, when I saw him.
He was sitting in a wheelchair, which was unfamiliar enough to my 9-year-old eyes – but what was really striking was the air of abandonment surrounding him.
The CNE grounds are large, but this man was sitting in a circle of emptiness, as if everyone was giving him a wide berth. When I moved closer, I could see that he was both mentally and physically disabled – he did not move or speak, and there was a cardboard sign placed on his lap, which read: “My name is John. Please take me around and show me a good time.” (Or words to that effect.)
I remember being appalled. To this day, I have no idea how John ended up there, or what happened to him after. I was filled with questions. How did he get there? If someone bothered to bring him all the way to the CNE and write a sign, why did they just leave him? Were they coming back? How long had he been there, all by himself? Did he know he’d been abandoned? What was he thinking and feeling? The look on his face filled me with despair.
I didn’t know what to do, but I couldn’t do nothing. I think I asked my friend’s dad what to do, and told him we had to help. He didn’t know either. It didn’t appear that anyone nearby knew John or was willing to get involved. We walked away and left him behind. I remember that night I cried in bed, and named the stuffed animal I’d won at the CNE “John”, in memory of that man.
Decades later, I still tear up when I think of him.
I also feel guilty, because I don’t feel like I’ve really done enough to help him, and other people who are vulnerable and marginalized.
Seeing John was a defining moment in my life. By nature, I’m generally motivated to help people; but between John and other life experiences, I’m particularly heartbroken for people who are left out, left behind, bullied, or suffering.
For me, John exemplifies exclusion. I don’t like the word diversity as it is commonly used – usually as a corporate euphemism for racism or discrimination. Workplaces often say they’re “diverse” to indicate they hire different races, genders, etc.
I don’t want diversity; I want inclusion.
Diversity lets John into the CNE – and leaves him sitting at the gates with a cardboard sign on his lap. Inclusion greets John warmly and spends the day taking him around the CNE, talking to him and having fun together.
I know I’m over-simplifying. And I’m not saying diversity is bad, or that all workplaces that use the term are falling short.
I am saying that we can do better as a society. The “Johns” of today may not look like the John of my childhood – but they still exist.
What will you do when your 9-year-old child asks you to help them?
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