Words are important.
Not long ago, we thought tolerance was a good enough word to use when advocating for certain groups of people. Despite good intentions, the use of this word promoted a rather lousy concept.
As President and CEO of the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles, I get to use two much better words -- acceptance and inclusion. I know that as people come in contact with our athletes, perceptions change. By celebrating the abilities of our athletes, people see beyond disability and begin to see fellow human beings of great value in the diverse fabric of our communities.
Personally, I am reminded of this value every day. Our daughter, Kelly, is a beautiful 27-year-old with Cerebral Palsy. Kelly spends most of her day in a wheelchair and requires our assistance with most of life's daily needs and activities. You never know how you might respond to having a child with special needs until you are blessed with one. There are tremendous challenges, but also tremendous joys. There is also no doubt in my mind that Kelly is a unique creation of God with a special purpose in life. She has a great sense of humor, loves to give hugs and touches those around her like no one else can.
But not everyone, not even every parent, sees the value of different so clearly.
In the summer of 2011, we were preparing to leave for the Special Olympics World Games in Athens, Greece. The trip was an important step in the ultimately successful process of bringing the 2015 World Games to Los Angeles. But a few days before leaving, I got really sick ... serious enough that getting on a flight was in question.
After a brief consultation with my doctor, a nurse came in to take my blood pressure and temperature. As she left the room, she looked up and down the hallway to see if anyone was around. She then returned and asked if we could talk. Not feeling too well at that moment, I reluctantly gave my okay. She said the doctor told the nursing staff that they needed to get me well so I could attend the Special Olympics World Games in Greece and that I have a daughter with Cerebral Palsy. The nurse then lowered her voice and asked, "Do people know about your daughter's condition?"
Not sure where this was going, I replied that Kelly is a big part of the lives of our family and friends ... in fact, getting a "Kelly Hug" is a big deal at our church.
With that, she began to cry. She told me that she, her husband, her mother and her 7-year-old son moved here from their country just over three years ago. She revealed that although she had worked at this medical facility since then, no one there knew she had a son. In fact, no one other than her husband and mother even knew her son existed. Through her tears, she spoke about her son's intellectual disability and explained that her husband will not accept him as their son because of his condition, "because in my country, the belief is that we did something wrong ... our son's condition is a curse."
Searching for the right words, I proceeded to tell her that I believe my daughter is a unique creation and that she positively touches people like no one else can. I explained to her that her son needed her and that he would enrich her life in remarkable ways if she allowed him to. (Later, I was encouraged to hear she was investigating a program for their family.)
As she left the room, I had a profound sense that this was why I had become sick. While preparing to leave for the World Games in Greece, I had received a firsthand account of one of the dire, but sadly common, situations that people and families with intellectual disabilities around the world -- and even here in Los Angeles -- must face.
How many more families are living here and around the world with the stigma of believing their family members are not worthy of being a valued member of our community? People with intellectual disabilities are among the most marginalized, misunderstood, and mistreated people in all communities. Simply advocating for tolerance is not enough to change that.
The 2015 Special Olympics World Games will be a time to celebrate abilities. It will not be a time of tolerance. It will be a time of acceptance and inclusion. And it will be a time to share the gift of a new perspective with millions around the world.
Join me in taking a stand for acceptance and inclusion for our athletes. For my nurse. For her son. For my daughter. And for the millions around the world that deserve to be celebrated as valuable members of our communities.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Special Olympics World Games in conjunction with the Take a Stand campaign leading up to the 2015 World Games that will take place in Los Angeles. To read all posts in the series, visit here. Learn more about the Special Olympics World Games, Los Angeles 2015 here.
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