Are You On-Board the Disability Inclusion Train?

Can you hear the bells? 

In “The Polar Express,” a young boy who is beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus takes a fantastical journey by train to the North Pole. When he arrives, his friends can hear the bells, but he cannot. In order to hear the bells, he has to make a conscious decision to believe. This made me reflect about how during the month of December, one question is ever present, “Do you believe?” Whether talking about our own ability to embrace the wonder of the season or passing traditions to our children, believing becomes so much more urgent in the month of December.  

This concept of believing hit me differently this year as I watched this newer holiday classic. I couldn’t help but notice that in his search to believe, this young boy (referred to as hero boy in the credits) had to take actions that would lead him down the right path. The hero boy had to get on the train. On the train he had to take a literal leap of faith from the roof into the coal cart. He had to choose to believe that the friend he made onboard the train knew the right lever to apply the train’s brakes. Upon arrival in the north pole, he had to step off the train and decide to join the others in meeting Santa. He had to trust in those who could hear the bells to lead him through the town and workshop. Each action he took supported his assertion, “I want to believe.” 

As I watched the movie, I found myself applying the lessons imparted to the children onboard the Polar Express during this holiday adventure to the area of disability inclusion. The movie opens with the narrator, voiced by Tom Hanks, setting the stage for the hero boy, “I was listening for a sound I was afraid I’d never hear.” In these words, I heard the echo of the voice of the disability community, and truly all of those who have lived with inequity. How many times throughout the history of humanity, have we found ourselves in the grips of a moment where we have doubted with the very fiber of our beings that we would ever hear the sound of freedom, true freedom from tyranny, from bigotry, from intolerance?  

When future historians, free from the petty distractions of the day, look back over this century and the last; what legacies will we have left behind? We have seen the Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the Dark Ages all find their place in the history of humanity. How will we have shaped our world? Will we be viewed, with the clarity of hindsight, as a blight or blessing? Arguably, over the previous century we have seen so much forward momentum in understanding humanity’s diversity and laying the foundation for celebrating the amazing differences and contributions of our various communities. In this century, some have worked to overturn those wins and eradicate the victories our leaders in the areas of peace and equity fought so hard to gain. In the face of these current battles raging in the political landscape, can we reach within ourselves to find the fortitude to believe, to listen for a sound we may never hear in our lifetime? 

While the hero boy’s search for Santa is for something much simpler than the search for equity in a world designed to perpetuate a power imbalance, at the very heart of the movie, there is a message so critical to the current stage of disability equity and inclusion. The hero boy must act to rekindle his belief. I am telling you here, today, that we too must act to rekindle our belief. Why? Well as the conductor tells the hero boy, “Now, young man, Christmas may not be important to some people, but it is very important to the rest of us.” For those of us who celebrate the civil rights gains of the last century, we know that these rights are very important. The hero boy has the ability to impact others and how they view the holiday through his words and actions. We see this in how the hero girl reacts when the hero boy questions if she is sure she knows the right lever to stop the train and, in the questions his younger sister asks about Santa at the beginning of the movie. The disability community needs more heroes. They need you to impact inclusion through your words and your actions. But the question remains, do you believe? 

Do you believe it when you say your company is stronger, more productive, and more profitable when it celebrates the diversity found within the world? Do you believe that only through collaboration can true advancements be made and innovations be discovered? Will this century be the first to be less advanced than the century before?  

When you say, yes, you believe, are you sure? Do you believe enough to act on that belief?  

There is a difference between hoping it is true and believing it is true. At Bender Consulting Services, Inc., we believe it is true. When the company was founded in 1995, it was founded solely on the belief that people with disabilities, when given the opportunity, will succeed. When Joyce first founded the company, she did it because nobody else would. Nobody else believed it was possible. All these years later, we have seen time and time again, that approximately 90% of those we place, all people with disabilities, are successful in their job roles. Yet, when we first started, we had to create the dialogue with so many companies who didn’t believe it was possible. That’s why we started our business with a consulting model – we took on the risk, because we believed in our community. All these years later, studies are coming forth which supported an assertion we made nearly three decades ago – people with disabilities enhance a company’s bottom line; hiring from this community makes good business sense.  

During the journey, the conductor says to the hero boy, “One thing about trains: It doesn’t matter where they’re going – what matters is deciding to get on.” So many companies out there take a “we’ll wait and see” approach to diversity. They want to see that some other company can make hiring work; they want to see what training some other company implements, they want to wait and see if it is real. Yet the Polar Express reminds us, “Seeing is believing, but, sometimes, the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.” 

When you think of great inventors, they didn’t wait for someone else to prove their theories. They believed. They acted. Sometimes they made mistakes. They learned from these mistakes. They acted again, and again, until they were successful. This is what it is to be diverse as a company. You act. You do your best to create a welcoming experience. You learn from the people you hire, you adjust and learn and adjust, until you are successful.  

Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a train, whether talking about communities of color, the LGBTQ+ community, religious diversity, disability, or any other group, and we must decide as companies, will we get on? You can’t see where the train is going while standing at the station. I see so many conferences and webinars about the importance of including diverse communities, but you can’t become diverse if your company is only willing to talk about diversity. You must get on the train; you must believe that this is the right thing to do – the right thing to do for humanity and the right thing to do for your business.  

The hero boy still had doubts when he boarded the train, he still had doubts when he pulled the lever, he still had doubts when he arrived in the north pole, he still had doubts when his friends could hear the bells, directing them to the center of the North Pole. He didn’t hear the bells until he believed. As a company, you can’t just wait until you see proof to act – you must believe and act on that belief if your diversity initiatives are to be successful. This is why we are so far removed from the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act and still experiencing such a high unemployment rate for people with disabilities – too many people are still waiting at the station.  

In closing, I want to ask again – Can you hear the bells? They ring for all who truly believe. The sound is magical.  

If you are ready to act and engage people with disabilities at your company, contact us today. We will be glad to have you onboard.